Friday, September 04, 2015

Poetry and Refugees

Migrants, we're told, present a crisis for Europe—untold thousands trek over dusty trails from Syria, or put themselves at the mercy of the Mediterranean as they set out from North Africa on rafts and other uncertain craft. I don't much care for the term "migrant," though: it implies something like choice, that the sufferings of these people are somehow their own fault, and reduces the moral urgency of the situation. Journalist Barry Malone gets at the truth of the matter when he writes:
The umbrella term migrant is no longer fit for purpose when it comes to describing the horror unfolding in the Mediterranean. It has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative. It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train. It is a migrant. A nuisance.
What we really have is a crisis, not of migrants, but of refugees. What can poetry do, in a time of such crisis? The question probably seems absurd to the more practical-minded, but it haunts poets at times like these. W.H. Auden addressed an earlier era's troubles in "Refugee Blues," a poem about Jewish refugees in the time of fascism, and Chinua Achebe's "Refugee Mother and Child" spoke to a crisis closer to our own time.

My own poor, best effort, came from the Yugoslav wars of the nineties, when I was living in Europe:

Poem for a War Poet, Poem for a War

The lines inked on the map are railways and roads.
The lines on the road are refugees, and moving.
The lines inked on the page are a poem, your poem.
            While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

The lines on the page are a poem, words
that move toward the refugees, their tattered world
of hurt and proper names, their lost, their staggering.
            While you are singing, while you are singing.

The lines are helpless in this time of war.  They survive,
if they are a poem, in valleys of saying, they survive
and reach for valleys where bodies cough, bleed, or stumble blind.

They survive while you are singing.
            While you are singing. 

The lines on the road are refugees,
Their paths are marked with ink, charted
on a General’s table.  Your lines are a poem.
            While you are singing, who will carry your burden?

A woman bends beneath her load, a young man stutters in his fear,
a guard at the valley’s border lets them through,
or not.  Your lines are a poem.
            Who will carry your burden

I am a great believer in poetry, and know what it has done for me and for others I care about. But I am also a believer in these words, from an anonymous editorial in the Arab American News:
The photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian child who drowned and washed on the shores of Turkey, has inspired volumes of poetry and sympathy. But words and tears will not help the people of Syria. Actions are needed by all governments— including ours— which considers itself the leading force in the free world. 
The United Nations has a fund for aid to refugees. Help if you can. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Poetry City: Call for Papers for a Collection about the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program

Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein at Buffalo

I'm very happy to announce the call for papers for Poetry City: The Founding of a New American Poetry at Buffalo, 1963-2003.  It will be the first book in the LF Critical Documents series from Lake Forest College Press, and will be edited by Robert Zamsky. The call for papers below gives details (and is also archived at the University of Pennsyvania's "Penn English Calls for Papers" site). 

The LF Critical Documents series is projected to publish one title of literary criticism per year, begining with Zamsky's Poetry City in 2017. Books may be by a single author or edited collections, and inquiries about possible future titles may be directed to me.

Poetry City: the Founding of a New American Poetry at Buffalo, 1963-2003. (Abstracts due: Oct. 1, 2015; chapters due Dec. 1, 2016)

full name / name of organization: 
Robert L. Zamsky / New College of Florida

contact email:

This is a call for an essay collection to be published by the Lake Forest College Press.
Poetry City explores the establishment, evolution, and impact of the Poetics Program at SUNY-Buffalo. The program has its roots in the academic fervor of the 1960s, the period in which the dynamic and visionary Chair of the English Department, Al Cook, filled the faculty roster with an unlikely array of influential literary scholars working in a wide range of periods and genres. In 1991, this commitment to innovation found a further iteration in the founding of the Poetics Program by Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein. Identified with a tradition of innovation in American poetry and poetics, the Poetics Program was envisioned as an alternative to both conventional doctoral programs in English and traditional creative writing programs. Poetics at Buffalo was to be a place where poets taught graduate level courses in literature , literary history, and literary theory, and where graduate students learned to work creatively as literary critics. The book takes its chronological frame from the arrival of Charles Olson in 1963 to the departures of Creeley and Bernstein in 2003.

Parallax Landscape is especially open to contributors working in unconventional forms.

Possible topics might include but are certainly not limited to:

• The relationship between the Poetics Program and the Poetry and Rare Books collection in the SUNY-Buffalo Library;

• The Poetics Program in the context of the nationwide proliferation of MFA programs;

• Gender in the Poetics Program;

• The influence of the tradition of experimental education in the United States on the formation of the program;

• Pedagogy and innovative poetics;

• The Poetics-List and Electronic Poetry Center;

• Small press publishing in the program;

• Performances and readings;

• Lives of the Poetics degree – career paths in/out of academia.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Archambeau World Tour: Live at the Poetry Foundation and the Grolier!

Where, you ask, is the place to be on the evening of Tuesday, September 15th? From 7:00-8:00 pm in Chicago it'll be the Poetry Foundation, at 61 West Superior, for a free reading featuring Mary Kinzie, Alexandra Pechman, Nicole Nodi, and some guy named Robert Archambeau, who will read from his new (indeed, released that very day) book The Kafka Sutra.

There will also be a small installation of images by artist Sarah Conner from a series of prints she made to accompany The Kafka Sutra.

Here, by the way, is the cover of the book, including blurbs by a number of worthies (click to enlarge the text to readable size).

If you can't make it to Chicago in September, how about Boston (well, Cambridge) in November? I'll be reading at The Kafka Sutra's east coast launch November 14th at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop on Harvard Square at 7:00 pm.

Friday, August 21, 2015

What Ever Happened to Gore Vidal?

You know what would really bother Gore Vidal, were he living today? A lot of things—the persistence of homophobia, say, or the banality of the mass media, or the continued overextension of a haplessly imperial America. But what would bother him even more would be the fact that the question "what ever happened to Gore Vidal?" is a reasonable one to ask. He loved many things, but chief among them was the idea of himself as a famous, public man, suave, sly, smarter than anyone else in the room, and with absolute faith that he (as author, as prophet, as charismatic icon) would be vindicated by history.  Of course he hasn't disappeared: if you read and you're of a certain age, you do know his name. But he's fading fast from both public consciousness and the literary canon, and it's fair to ask why.

Vidal's was certainly a copious literary talent, and while I've read ten or twelve of his books, that really only scratches the surface of the oeuvre, which was both vast and various: from political essays to satires of politics, media, and society, to sensitive coming of age novels, to historical fiction, to plays for screen and stage, to the bare-fisted yet elegant pummeling of opponents in political debate, his range was as great as his ambition, and nearly as great as his considerable charm, and equally considerable ego. One of the most popular serious writers of his generation, and one of its more memorable media figures, he seemed, during his lifetime, to have wedged himself firmly into the culture, a figure to be remembered for posterity.  And yet, if you plug his name into Google's ngram reader, you'll see a precipitous plunge in mentions of his name in print.  And if you gather up the syllabi for courses in American literature—the great wax museums in which we commemorate the literary dead—he rarely appears. So we ask: what happened?

One explanation may be that our institutions of cultural memory, especially our academic ones, tend to value innovation. The inventors and pioneers of literature get a special place, and are forgiven many of their shortcomings. We don't (at least, I hope we don't) read Ezra Pound for his analyses of society, except perhaps to treat his views on those matters as symptoms of a grim time when democracy was in such deep crisis that fascism seemed, to a surprising number of people, like a kind of solution. We read Pound in large measure because he was an innovator, a writer of manifesti, a shaper of movements, one who pushed against the margins of accepted form. Imagism, Vorticism, a new way to build a long poem—that's the Pound of the syllabi. And for all of Vidal's evident talent, all of his range, it's hard to find something he accomplished that didn't derive from what others had written.  His Julian is a sensitive treatment of late Roman antiquity, but if you've read Robert Graves, you can't help feeling that you've seen this sort of thing done before, and better, by someone who knew the period better than did Vidal.  Vidal's political fiction, especially Washington, D.C. owes quite a bit to Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, in outlook and in structure. Williwaw  is a decent young man's novel about coming of age in a time of war, but it comes out of a well-established playbook for such novels. Even his most far-out fiction, the transsexual eros and power festival that is Myra Breckenridge, which the public didn't see coming and couldn't get over, is less of a surprise if you've read, say, the then-semi-clandestine works published by Olympia Press.

Another factor in the decline of Vidal's renown has to do with genre. The bulk of his achievement as a novelist was in historical fiction, and English departments, a generation or so of democratizing moves notwithstanding, still draw a strong distinction, in practice, between high-genre forms of fiction and low-genre forms—historical fiction is low caste stuff. Not as low caste as crime writing or swords & sorcery, but still pretty low on the totem pole, below the novel of manners, say. It's one reason why Jane Austen is on so many more syllabi than Sir Walter Scott, even though he was arguably the leading novelist of his generation.

There is, too, the suffragette factor to consider. When we move away from Vidal's historical fiction, it's books like Myra Breckenridge and its sequel, Myron that made the biggest splash in Vidal's lifetime—and much of that splash had to do with leaping into the seemingly calm pool of gender norms with an enthusiastic cannonball dive. The fluidity of gender and of bodies in those books, and the exploration of the intersection of sex and power, were things rarely seen in the public eye, and he put them there, on the page and on the screen. This was an enormous act of liberation.  But the thing about the sexual revolution, and the queer revolution, and all revolutions that achieve a large measure of success, is that their success makes them seem somewhat banal to later generations. It's hard to get young people enthused about the idea of the suffragettes, or even to get them to declare themselves to be feminists, even though they live lives and hold beliefs that would not have been possible without the work of those heroes of the struggle. When Myra Breckenridge came out in 1968, it was one of a handful of publicly accessible sources for genderqueer ideas and representations. Now, thirty seconds on the internet will give you access to a wider range of genders and sexualities than Vidal could possibly cram into that book's pages. Vidal was certainly an important part of the expansion of the public palette when it comes to sexuality, but the very success of the movement of which he was a part renders his contribution less visible.

Finally, we may want to consider the nature of Vidal's fame in his lifetime. Certainly he had to have been a writer to gain a public platform, to begin to appear in the media. But he had such a genius for media appearances that his fame as a personality soon came to dominate over his fame as a writer of novels and essays. As Seymour Krim put it in 1969,

…for 20 years [Vidal] wrote novels with no loud success until Myra Breckenridge—yet all of a sudden he seems to have walked into a spotlight glittering with a million bucks, "national prestige," intellectual respect, multiplying projects, and also the very tangible power denied to most pathetic dollar-begging literary lives in our disunited States. The interesting thing is that while the practice of literature or at least the common novel gave Vidal the opportunity to be a Somebody, it is not on the basis of letters pure and simple (even complex) that he has created a stir about himself…. The success is in close-combat American life.

For Krim, Vidal wasn't a novelist so much as a media personality, someone who would hash out any battle with any opponent on the air, and do so with such an idiosyncratic and memorable style that he stayed in the mind as an icon, or a brand. And when he aged, and died, and slipped from the media, that part of his reputation died with him. He was so good at this kind of ephemeral media activity that parts of this side of his life—the debates with William F. Buckley, for example—have been commemorated in documentary film. But in the end, the kind of fame he had was the kind of fame you can only maintain by constantly appearing in the spotlight, connecting yourself and your opinion to each passing spectacle. Now that this is no longer possible, we're left with only the books, and an archive of old film and videotape on issues that were once in the headlines. The books will survive, I'm sure of that. But the media personality? I liked him. May he rest in peace.

Friday, August 07, 2015

A Stranger from the Sky: Sun Ra as Poet and Alien

Hardly anyone thinks of Sun Ra as a poet.  A visionary outsider figure even in the realm of music, where his work is only occasionally taken as seriously as it ought to be, he has almost no standing in the field of American poetry—this despite the fact that his poetry appeared in many Black Arts movement publications, and sat cheek-to-jowl with that of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Allen Ginsberg in the late sixties' Umbra Anthology.  Perhaps it's significant, in this context, that his poetry was brought to my attention not from within the poetry world, but from outside it: it was the Australian critical theorist McKenzie Wark who first steered me toward This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra.  When I mentioned the book to various poets and critics, none of them had heard of it.  One, a jazz obsessive and semi-professional saxophonist, was stunned that Sun Ra's poetry had never appeared on his radar.

What are the poems of This Planet is Doomed like? Firstly, they have the virtues and vices of much spoken word poetry (the text of book was assembled from transcripts of tapes discovered by archivist Michael D. Anderson): they hit hard when spoken aloud, when patterns of repetition and opportunities for emoting are best realized; on the page, though, they aren't as strong.  Secondly, they're as weird and out-there as you'd expect Sun Ra's poetry to be.  Indeed, the book's subtitle already indicates the nature of that weirdness: "science fiction poetry."  We're used to genre fiction, but genre poetry?  When you get past the initial oddness, though, the poems situate themselves quite strongly in several distinguished literary traditions: the literature of African-American alienation; the wing of Romanticism most strongly associated with the fantastic; and the literature of Gnosticism.  Sun Ra was an autodidact, and as idiosyncratic as they come, but only the kind of pedantic wretch who thinks the words "university transcript" are a synonym for "education" would consider Sun Ra's connection to these traditions co-incidental.  He arrived at his alienation existentially, and fabricated a personal and artistic identity unlike anybody else's, but he tailored that identity from some of the richest cloth in the great Savile Row of literature.  It's less different from T.S. Eliot than fans of either artist might prefer to think.  I kind of want to post side-by-side pictures of them holding their poems with the caption "mythological tradition: who wore it better?" but that would just provoke people who refuse to let themselves admire one or the other of them.

Mythological tradition: Who wore it better?

Alienation from mainstream American culture was more-or-less a given for African-Americans at mid-century: indeed, both laws and the force behind them made the marginal status of African-Americans abundantly clear.  But to be a gay African-American, and a genius to boot, marked one out for a special degree of alienation.  We see it clearly enough in the writings, and largely ex-patriot life, of James Baldwin, who turned to Europe as an exotic elsewhere where his very outsider status freed him from the box into which America would put him and, what is more, put him on something approaching equal footing with the white Americans he met in Paris.  In a 1959 essay for the New York Times called "The Discovery of What it Means to be an American," Baldwin tells us of the alienation he felt in America, and of the liberating feeling of becoming another kind of alien, an American abroad:

I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here. (Sometimes I still do.)  I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.  I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect with other people instead of dividing me from them.  (I was as isolated from other Negroes as I was from whites, which is what happens when a Negro begins, at bottom, to believe what white people say about him.)  In my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I.  And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris.  Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African—they were no more at home in Europe than I was.

There's nothing quite like this in Sun Ra's writing, unless we translate "Paris" to "outer space."  Then things start to look familiar: the over-arching desire is for escape from a place that limits you, that confines you physically and, more importantly, that insidiously imposes its categories of thought onto your mind.  Consider these lines from "This Planet is Doomed" in the context of Baldwin:

it just breaks me all up, man
it just breaks me all up—
can't understand a damn bit of it
like man, I gotta get away from it
I gotta get away from it before they mess up
my mind
before they take my soul, man
I just gotta get away
and blast off in my rocket ship

I come from a better place than this
what in the hell am I here for—
I gotta blast away
I gotta get away, man
I gotta blast off like a super megatron
rocket on
electro dynamic radiation

Outer space, as Sun Ra imagines it, is free from the soul-crushing ideology of mid-century America, so hostile to people like him.  He envisions it as a kind of pure place where we can meet on equal footing: Baldwin may always have Paris for this, but Sun Ra has the galactic depths.  And it's not only space that has this appeal.  So powerful is Sun Ra's need for a place where the constraints of American race identity can be shed that, in the poem "The Government of Death," he even falls half in love with easeful death, where all are equals:

all in the realm of death is
nothing else but peace
its inhabitants have all received
equal rites
because they have received equal rights
that is, services, personal and
without prejudice of death

And later in the poem we read:

all governments
on earth
set up by men
are discriminating
but the government of death is a
pure government
it treats all in an equal manner
it is a startling, revealing picture
of equality for all
and in the realm of death
is nothing else but

The need for an exotic and liberating elsewhere is a constant in Sun Ra's poems, and he even dreams of addressing an audience of alien beings, often a kind of cross between space creatures and entities out of the Judeo-Christian mythos.  "let me write my music," he says in "Not for Earth Alone," "not for earth alone, but for the worlds/for those in being/those in seeming" who are also somehow "angels/and demons and devils."  This yearning for elsewhere is the stuff of Romanticism, especially of continental Romanticism, and its escapism is serious stuff.  By turning its back on the ordinary world, it enacts a profound criticism of that world, a near-total rejection of it as unredeemed, maybe unredeemable by anything less than an imaginative apocalypse.  Readers of  William Blake's prophetic works have already dialed into these frequencies, as have connoisseurs of Baudelaire.  The great maverick Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre called this kind of fantasist Romanticism the "critique of everyday life," and found in it a radicalism both profound and, ultimately, limited:

Under the banner of the marvelous, nineteenth-century literature mounted a sustained attack on everyday life which has continued unabated up to the present day.  The aim is to demote it, to discredit it.  Although the duality between the marvelous and the everyday is just as painful as the duality between action and dream, the real and the ideal—and although it is an underlying reason for the failures and defeats which so many works deplore—nineteenth century man seemed to ignore this, and continued obstinately to belittle real life, the world 'as it is.'

If Sun Ra is a part of this tradition, he is also part of an even older tradition of alienation, the line of Gnostic writing extending back two millennia.  Indeed, his elaborately developed Afro-Futurist mythology is, as a way of addressing larger truths, very in accord with Gnostic thinking, which favored myth and image over discursive abstraction ("Truth did not come into the world naked," reads the Gnostic "Gospel of Philip," "but in types and images.  Truth is received only that way").  Sun Ra is at his most Gnostic when, like thinkers in that tradition, he sees the material world around us as fallen, broken, and not our true home (Stephan Hoeller, a contemporary Gnostic thinker, defines the material world as evil inasmuch as it diverts our attention from the imaginative journey back to our divine origins beyond the material realm—he, like many Gnostics, sees it as a barrier to the soul's journey home).  When we read a refrain like "I pull the veil aside" in Sun Ra's poem "Dreams Rush to Meet Me," we're rubbing up against his Gnosticism, as we are when we read his declaration of his true home in "A Stranger from the Sky":

I am a stranger from the sky
far away, farther than the eye can see
is my paradise
a mystical world from outer space ("Stanger from the Sky")

Some of the poems of This Planet is Doomed are chant-like, rhythmically repetitive, and hard to extract, but even a crudely-carved out passage like this, taken almost at random from "State of the Cosmos," gives a sense of the Gnostic's yearning for breaking past the barriers of the material world into a space better and closer to the divine (it also gives a sense that, at times, Sun Ra was perfectly happy to dwell in abstractions).  Watch how the "reasonable reality of the state of the world" contrasts with something truer, the "reasonable reality of the state of the cosmos":

…the synchronization of the shadows to
the authorized reality
is a key to the reasonable reality of the
state of the world
disconnected of the shadows from the
so-called authorized reality
and the application of the new
potential through resynchronization of
the shadow
to the unauthorized mind images of the
cosmic idea
is a transformation of the shadow into
the living cosmic multi-self
this is the key to the reasonable reality
of the state of the cosmos
synchronization of the shadows to the
authorized reality is the key to the
reasonable state of the world
the disconnection of the shadows from
the so-called authorized reality and the
application of the new potential through
resynchronization of the shadows to the
unauthorized mind image of the cosmic
ideas of transformation of the shadow
into the living cosmic multi-self
this is the key to the reasonable reality
of the state of the cosmos

The reason of this world is not the reason of the cosmos,and it is to the cosmos that we truly belong.
Sun Ra is singular, certainly.  But he doesn't come from space, even if he dreams of it as his destination.  He comes out of a long tradition, several long traditions, and all of these traditions arose as balm for the dispossessed, as ways of imagining an outside to the narrow box of nightmares into which we wake.  May the cosmos send us more like him.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Robert Creeley, Poetry Warrior

Great news! The new issues of two of my favorite literary journals, The Laurel Review and The Notre Dame Review, have dropped from the sky.  The latest Laurel Review is a special prose poetry issue, and includes two pieces from my forthcoming remix extravaganza, The Kafka Sutra (in which the parables of Kafka are retold as if they were a Sanskrit sex manual).  The Notre Dame Review features a raft of great stuff, as well as "Robert Creeley: Poetry Warrior," a little something I wrote about The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, a very fine edition prepared by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, and Kaplan Harris.  It begins like this:
            “The book,” wrote Robert Creeley to Rod Smith, who was then hard at work on the volume in question, Creeley’s Selected Letters, “will certainly ‘tell a story.’”  Now that the text of that book has emerged from Smith’s laptop and rests between hard covers, it’s a good time to ask just what story those letters tell.  Certainly it isn’t a personal one. Creeley was a New Englander, through and through, and of the silent generation to boot.  Yankee reticence blankets the letters too thickly for us to feel much of the texture of Creeley’s quotidian life, beyond whether he feels (to use his favored idiom) he’s “making it” through the times or not.  Instead, the letters, taken together, tell an intensely literary story—and, as the plot develops, an institutional, academic one.  Call this story “From the Outside In,” maybe.  Or, better, treat it as one of the many Rashomon-like eyewitness accounts of that contentious epic that goes by the title The Poetry Wars.
            If you, like me, you entered the little world of American poetry in the 1990s, you found the Cold War that was ending in the realm of politics to be in full effect in poetry.  What had begun as a brushfire conflict between rival journals and anthologies in the fifties and early sixties had settled into an institutionalized rivalry, with an Iron Curtain drawn between the mutually suspicious empires of Iowa City and Buffalo.  The longstanding Iowa Writers Workshop found itself in a geo-poetic stalemate with a younger, more radical opponent, the Poetics Program at SUNY–Buffalo, which Creeley helped found in 1991, and which formalized Buffalo as the institutional home for poets who rankled at the idea that history had ended with Robert Lowell.  For many young poets, it seemed one had to pick a side, and treat the rival camp with deep mistrust, if not contempt.  For others, it all seemed a bit pointless, especially the rhetoric of resentment emanating from Buffalo, perhaps the best-endowed poetry program in the nation at the time.  Reading Creeley’s Selected Letters, which begins with a wartime letter from Creeley to his family and ends with an email he sent two weeks before his death in 2005, we get a view from the trenches of the postwar poetry wars, from their beginnings to a time when they were fading into literary history.  We get, too, a vivid picture of the outsider status, or non-status, of innovative poets like Creeley in their formative years (“we do not have any status as writers in this country” he wrote in 1956).
The whole piece is available in print and in a pdf online here. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Coming This Fall: The Kafka Sutra

Behold! The cover of my next book, The Kafka Sutra, due out this fall from MadHat Press.  The title sequence is one of the odder things I've done—a rewriting of the Kama Sutra as if Kafka had written it; or a rewriting of Kafka's parables as an ancient Sanskrit sex manual.  Accompanying the series are artworks by Sarah Conner, such as this:

Thanks to Sarah; and to Moxie (the scariest belly-dancer in Chicago) for modeling for the cover; to Kriss Abigal for her amazing photo, and to Valerie for work on the layout.  This is my favorite cover yet among my books, in part because the "belly dancer in a top hat" look captures something of both Kafka and the Kama Sutra.

Also, thanks to the great David Kirby, who says this on the back of the jacket:
I’m pretty sure I was the only one reading poetry as I waited for my car to be serviced, but certainly I was the one who rocked the other customers out of their torpor with a belly laugh – not an unrelated occurrence, since I was reading Robert Archambeau’s addictive poems and had just gotten to the one in which men are told they can either become a husband or the lover of another man’s wife; naturally they all choose the second option, and the result is that soon there are no more wives. Then again, a rich irony suffuses all these poems. If you’re heading to the dealership and are looking for brainy, funny lines delivered with a rueful sigh, The Kafka Sutra is definitely the book for you.
And the immortal Andrei Codrescu, who says:
Archambeau has found the cartilage that keeps the body flexible and life Kafkaesque by inventing a musical technique that keeps life’s surging anarchy personalized through the universally usable Kama Sutra.  I’m using it right now!
And to the gracious Maxine Chernoff, who writes:
Reading Robert Archambeau's vastly engaging book, The Kafka Sutra, I feel as if I have gone on several vacations, a safari, and a trip into imaginative space: his far-ranging mind "riffs on, or remixes, replies to, or makes deeply unfaithful translations of what others have written." The book has sound, technique, wit, grace, staggering inventiveness, and above all generosity: from supplying Kafka with a deeply sexualized "new" body of work to celebrating luminaries from David Bowie to John Milton it is all splendidly here, in aces.
And, last but by no means least, to Wendy Doniger, Sanskrit scholar, Kama Sutra translator, and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago who, after reading The Kafka Sutra, said:
Archambeau’s absolutely hilarious Kama Sutra spoof made me howl with laughter! 
MadHat Press is to be held responsible for my crimes against literature.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How to Be A Classic: Four or Five Versions of Edgar Allan Poe

Even though the concept of a literary canon has been in tatters for decades, the fact of a literary canon still, for better or for worse, remains.  And one of the names least likely to be dislodged from the de facto canon of American literature in any foreseeable future is that of Edgar Allan Poe.  But why? One answer is simple, or seems to be: that Poe was an inventor, an astonishing inventor.  Indeed, he was the Tesla or Edison of literature, and from the laboratory of his genius came both entirely new modes of writing and crucial refinements upon still-developing genres.  But as any infomercial seen during insomnia-ridden night in a hotel with lousy cable options makes abundantly clear, not all inventions matter.  Many of Poe's did: they had staying power, influenced important writers, and spoke to generations of readers. This, I think, had as much to do with Poe's moment as with the man himself.

When Poe's short writing career began, there was surprisingly little literary infrastructure in America.  Literacy rates were climbing quickly, and the days when an American writer had to send a manuscript off to England to have it printed were long gone, but the landscape was utterly unlike what we know today.  Not only were there no foundations, or grants, or MFA programs—there were very few places to publish, and those tended to reach fairly ill-defined audiences: a century later writers could send science fiction stories to science fiction magazines, adventure stories to magazines sold specifically to boys who dreamed of jungle exploration, stories with literary pretence to stalwart little literary journals, and so forth.  But Poe had to make his way in the dark.  When he came on the scene the number of Americans who had made a living by the pen could be counted on the fingers of one hand (Washington Irving is the only name still recognized) and what the public wanted, what they were willing to pay to read, remained a mystery (Irving tried all kinds of things: pop history, observational letters, hopped-up folktales, you name it).  So Poe tried everything: his story "The Balloon-Hoax" was initially published in a newspaper and passed off as fact; and his proliferation of inventions was in large measure a sounding-out of the public, a matter of throwing all kinds of words at the wall of fame and fortune and hoping something would stick.  His was a time of the open literary frontier, of risky ventures in an unknown landscape with the hope of vast rewards.

When we think of Poe's limited success in his short lifetime, and his posthumous canonical ubiquity, we might remember Gertrude Stein's thoughts about posterity in her essay "Composition as Explanation":
No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept.  The things refused are only important if unexpectedly somebody happens to need them.
Poe's inventions didn't quite take before his death at the age of 40, but they've proved important to a great many readers and writers later—somebody did happen to need them.  In fact, many people did, and for many different reasons: his wild inventiveness, which was a response to the unformed literary landscape of his time, meant that he came, posthumously, to appeal to multiple constituencies—a factor as important to a writers' posterity as it is to a politician's electoral prospects.

One way to think about Poe's different constituencies is to associate them with the important writers who have drawn from one or another side of the Poe legacy.  Four or five such writers (and their four different views of Poe) come to mind:

Ray Bradbury's Poe.  Ray Bradbury's aunt gave him an illustrated edition of Poe's stories when he was a child and he never looked back.  "I am the ghost of Poe resurrected" he once told an interviewer (he also said he was the new Melville, but that he was Poe "above all").  Among the treasures most valued by Bradbury collectors are the letters he sent out with Edgar Allan Poe commemorative stamps, under which Bradbury invariably wrote "My Papa."  But which Poe is his father?  The story "Usher II," included in the American but not the British editions of The Martian Chronicles, explicitly draws on "The Fall of the House of Usher," but the gothic Poe is of secondary importance at best to Bradbury.  His Poe is the early pioneer of science fiction, the technology-obsessed writer of "The Balloon Hoax."  But Bradbury's Poe is also the adventure writer, the minute-by-minute chronicler of struggle and daring: a story like Bradbury's "The Long Rain" from The Illustrated Man may be set on Venus, but it is every bit as much the man-vs.-nature tale as Poe's "Into the Maelstrom," where inventive problem solving and stoic endurance are the primary virtues.  Bradbury's Poe is the grandfather of many pulp magazine writers of the twentieth century, the progenitor of Amazing Stories and Argosy.

H.P. Lovecraft's Poe.  Many people see Poe's influence on Lovecraft's career as confined to his early, pre-Cthulhu period, and there is something to this.  Certainly the Poe who dabbled in the gothic, the Poe of "The Fall of the House of Usher" was a direct influence on the early Lovecraft—and it's true to say that Lovecraft's development of an elaborate fictional mythos has no real precedent in Poe, owing more to Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegāna than any other source.  But it isn't the trappings of gothic horror that really matter in the Poe-Lovecraft connection.  Indeed, Poe himself wasn't the inventor of the long-established machinery of gothic horror, he was the refiner of that tradition.  His greatest refinement is the application of what he called, in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," the literary work's "unity of effect"—the conscious co-ordination of all parts of the story to a single affective end, to produce a single emotion in the reader.  This kind of deliberate orchestration is what early gothic writers like Sheridan Le Fanu or Horace Walpole lack—Poe introduces calculated order into the wild garden of the gothic imagination, and the effect is (and is precisely intended to be) spine chilling.  The way a story like "The Pit and the Pendulum" strives, inch by inch, to creep you the fuck out is Poe's greatest legacy to Lovecraft—who applied the lesson throughout his career—and to the black-garbed, eyeliner wearing multitudes who followed in Lovecraft's baleful wake.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe.  Poe is not the inventor of the detective tale, which, like the word "detective" itself, has its origins in France. There's a strong case for Voltaire's Zadig as the ultimate progenitor of the genre, and examples appeared sparsely here and there throughout European literature in the decades that followed, notably in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Poe once worked for a man named William Evans Burton, who wrote "The Secret Cell," a story of police following procedures to solve crime—but it is what Poe does with the genre that is original.  While Burton's story is all about following rational procedures, Poe's three "tales of ratiocination" insist that one needs not only the tools of the scientist, but of the poet, to see into the heart of things.  Indeed, it is the character he invents, the fallen French aristocrat and bohemian outsider C. Auguste Dupin who represents his real innovation: the detective not only as rational man, but as aloof outsider, as a virtuoso of insight, as the master of inferring a world from a small tic, the way a great poker player reads his opponents by their giveaway 'tells.'  This is the character who inspired Sherlock Holmes, as Arthur Conan Doyle is quick to acknowledge: he even has Watson compare Holmes to Dupin (as well he might: the first Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" is a scandal indeed, in that much of it is a virtual plagiarism of "The Purloined Letter").  The Byronic detective is Poe's invention, and from Dupin to Holmes it's just a short drive to the vast and shadowy lands of noir.

Jorge Luis Borges' Poe.  Borges mentions Poe up in well over 100 different essays and scores of interviews, and posed for a photograph at Poe's grave.  So deep was his love of Poe that he carries not one, but two versions of Poe close to his heart.  The first is much like Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe, the Poe of Dupin and analytic detection.  Indeed, Borges wrote stories in response to Poe, stories best read in tandem with the Dupin stories.  But Borges' other Poe is my favorite Poe.  The Poe of the Dupin stories is the master of the explicable universe—Dupin sees through surface confusion and grasps the thread connecting and making sense of all things.  But there's another Poe who matters to Borges—the Poe of stories like "MS Found in a Bottle," the Poe devoted to mystery, to meanings always on the verge of coming clear.  I often think of "MS Found in a Bottle" as the antithesis of "Into the Maelstrom"—each story deals with an enormous whirlpool drawing the protagonist in, but where "Into the Maelstrom" deals in physics and rational calculations for survival, "MS Found in a Bottle" offers nothing of the kind.  Instead, we encounter mysteries that can't be solved, unless, perhaps, the moment of revelation comes when we exit the known world and allow ourselves to be taken over the border into something mysterious—perhaps death—at the sublime heart of the whirlpool.  This sense of a great revelation concealed but hovering on the verge of revelation is at the heart of many of Borges' best-known writings: we see it in "The Garden of Forking Paths," for example, and we watch scholars search for it in "The Library of Babel."  "The Lottery of Babylon" hints that there may, just may, be a secret order to the world, but we hover on the brink of knowing, just as Poe's protagonist does in "MS Found in a Bottle." This Poe is the modernist and postmodernist's Poe, a Poe not for the mass market pulp magazines but for the literary quarterlies and the seminar room.

To these four we might consider adding another, Charles Baudelaire's Poe.  Baudelaire's translations of Poe were crucial to establishing Poe's international reputation, but I find it difficult to think of Poe as an influence on Baudelaire so much as a spirit-companion, a courage-giver for a kindred spirit.  Poe's writing mattered to Baudelaire, to be sure, but as Baudelaire's biographer Alex De Jonge put it, "Perhaps more importantly, Baudelaire identified with the man.  Poe was the first modern writer: a desperate loser, haunted by his guignon [his bad luck or fated failure], a man who lived a life of misery and drink, and died in suspect and ignoble circumstances."  This Poe matters too, of course, but less as a writer than as a type, the poète maudit.

Many of the writers who drew from Poe exceeded him in one or another form of excellence.  But it is hard to think of any modern figure who equals him in inventiveness.  We might turn to the evolution of the literary market for explanations: the lack of defined genres, Roberto Bolaño once remarked, is a sign of literary underdevelopment: in advanced economies we find whole arrays of literary niches and sub-niches: hard-boiled detective, young adult fiction, swords and sorcery, historiographic metafiction, you name it.  Specialization is the norm—but this wasn't an option for Poe, who worked in a relative vacuum, and tried in a thousand ways to connect with a readership.

How, then, to be a classic?  Invent, try new things, take a lot of potshots, and—this is the hard part—happen to hit bulls-eyes with all of them.