The MLA is here in San Francisco. So much going on: readings, talks, informal gatherings. I served as a chair for a panel entitled Transgression and the New Narrative, organized by graduate student Danny Kennedy from the National University of Ireland. His paper was entitled, "So Much Endlessness Stored Up and in Store: The Project of Representation in the New Narrative." Danny was joined by Rob Halpern who presented a paper called "Realism and Utopia: Writing, Sex, and Activism in the New Narrative" and Bob Gluck whose talk was entitled "Bataille and New Narrative." Each paper was layered and complex. Each paper mentioned New Narrative's relationshp to Language Writing. Finally, a whole panel on New Narrative at MLA, and in its home, San Francisco!
In 2006 in Philadelphia, I gave a paper called, "New Narrative: Story as Social & Ethical Currency of Community" as part of a panel called Social Fictions. Kathy Lou Schultz was in the audience and might have been the only person there who had read the work of New Narrative Writers--Bob Gluck and Bruce Boone--about which I spoke. At yesterday's panel, there were more people in the audience who know this work--Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, Miranda Mellis, Eireene Nealand, and others. And it is encouraging that New Narrative has found its way across the sea to Ireland.It seems that Danny has been at work reading New Narrative for awhile. In 2006, he organized an international conference called "On: Dennis Cooper," and in 2008, the conference "NarrativEncounters: New Perspectives on Narration."
There were many other interesting and stimulating MLA panels though, I confess, dear readers, that I didn't make it to too many. Attending MLA in one's home town is actually somewhat more fraught when one is still juggling one's daily life! I did sacrifice Bikram yoga Sunday morning so I could attend two panels: Poetry and Complex Systems: Global Ecologies and Poetic Form with papers by Christopher Nealon ("The Matrix and the Oracle, 1972"); Nathan Brown ("The Distribution of the Insensible"), Joshua Clover ("Worldsystemangst: Here Comes China"); and Sianne Ngai whose paper title I can't remember since she changed it from the title published in the program. However, I can tell you that Ngai performed an elegant close reading of Juliana Spahr's The Transformation.
Following on the heels of this panel was one entitled Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. I heard Ian Balfour's "The Word Under Pressure of the Image" and Sianne Ngai's "The Zany Science." At this point, I left to go rock climbing as part of the birthday celebration for my daughter. However, I'm glad I made it to part of this panel. I am so impressed with Ngai's work. She argued for the importance of new aesthetic categories for approaching the work of contemporary literature. The zany is one such category. Ngai traced the historical construction of the zany, illustrating how it bridges the popular and the avant-garde, and has a historical reach from commedia dell'arte to The Cable Guy. Ngai's reimagining and refiguring of how we understand and situate contemporary writing, and in what terms, is important work.
So, a sliver of the MLA.
All of this brings me to a quote with which I'd like to close the year. MLA's presence here in San Francisco and the panel on New Narrative have prompted me to reiterate here something that has been unstated but undergirds part of the project of this blog and is one way to understand what I am seeking to do in my dissertation: Community and Contestatory Writing Practices in the San Francisco Bay Area 1970-Present.
It is about literary practices and potholes. It is about history and complexity. It is about the future. The social. The communal. Contestations. And what literatures survive and which don't.
In Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (The University of Wisconsin Press 1989), Cary Nelson calls our attention the following:
“It is remarkable how rapidly we lost the rich literary and social heritage of modern poetry. By the 1950s a limited canon of primary authors and texts was already in place. The names in the canon continued to change, but a substantial majority of interesting poems from 1910-1945 had already been forgotten. Academic critics had come to concentrate on close readings of a limited number of texts by ‘major’ authors. University course requirements were increasingly influential in shaping the market for new anthologies. And the professorate, largely while and male and rarely challenged from within its own ranks, found it easy to reinforce the culture’s existing racism and sexism by ignoring poetry by minorities and women. Much of modern poetry was either out of print and no longer available in bookstores or never published in book form and thus forgotten in journals no longer being published. As the dominant social functions of poetry began to change in the 1940s, some poets found it difficult to publish their work. Other poets, such as Mina Loy and Marsden Hartley, never made much effort to promote their own poetry, rarely sending poems to journals and showing relatively little need to assemble and publish books. That did not, however, mean they were any less committed to their writing. We tend to ignore evidence that promotion by oneself or others plays a role in building careers, preferring to assume it is the best poets, not necessarily those who are most ambitious or most widely publicized, who retain long-term visibility” (35).
This review (though without this title) appears in the brand spanking new CRAYON 5 which can be ordered from SPD Books.
Out of Context: What’s Class Got to Do with It?
A Review of LIAR by Mike Amnasan. San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2007
by Robin Tremblay-McGaw
July 2, 2007
The relation between class and the production and reception of literature has always been a fraught one. Just as often, it has frequently gone unremarked by those engaged most intimately in the processes of writing itself.(1) Who writes, why, and how? And furthermore, who is heard, published, read? Mike Amnasan’s third book, LIAR, does not shy away from these indelicate questions. His novel begins: “I never claimed to be honest when I identified myself as working class. Then again I wasn’t really given a choice as to what that identification meant. I couldn’t determine how I was seen. Know what I mean? No, you probably don’t” (7). The first paragraph of the book locates the first person narrator as “working class’ and at the same time it calls into question what such a label might mean; simultaneously it casts into doubt discrete notions of honesty, artifice and fabrication and wrestles with what it means to be identified and recognized by oneself or others.
Think about it. I have no capacity for artifice. I can’t change. When I tried to change what working class meant I began living a lie. It wasn’t personal. It had nothing to do with me as an individual. It was simply a matter of how others could most easily recognize me as someone. Now I’ve got to make a falsehood into an acceptable way of life. Even if nobody listens, this lie is the glue that holds the various strands of my life together.
As the narrator informs us, these questions are pertinent not only to the narrator personally, but have to do with larger social relations. In its construction of the desire for and the refusal of identity and recognition, it presents a Hegelian version of consciousness in the dialectic of master and slave with its multiple mirroring gazes and problematizing of the locus of power. The text explicitly extends this figure in a consideration of politics. The opening paragraph is followed by a third person account of several responses to the 1987 televised hearings of Oliver North on the Iran-Contra affair. The news station has sent a crew to San Francisco’s financial district to interview people during their lunch hour about the hearings. One man says, “‘There are bigger concerns than Oliver North. I think we should put that whole affair aside and move on to more important matters’” (7) while “a young woman in a different part of the plaza adds, ‘He was only following orders from people higher up’” (8). The newscast moves to a different geographic location in the city, south of Market, where a construction worker responds: “‘He’s a criminal and he should do time for what he did!’” (8). Class shapes responses to the world and the actors in it. But contrary to what might be suggested in the quote about various responses to Oliver North, the working class world depicted in LIAR isn’t constructed as some simple utopian realm of truth. LIAR is so much more complicated than this. The book articulates a world of dislocation and dishonesty, and produces a subject always out of context. In the end, LIAR exposes the lie in any claim that a specific subject has dibs on authenticity, truth, or privileged access to the field of experimentation. Every position is a false one.
The novel consists of segments of first and third person narration inter-cut with sections of a science fiction story that the main character Joe is writing. The novel charts the fragments of the sci-fi story and the dynamics of Joe’s failing relationship with Jane, a visual artist, and his S/M affair with married lover Ann. At the same time, Joe finds himself caught not only between two women, but also two worlds, two realities–the construction site where he makes his living and the mostly middle class experimental writing community he struggles to participate in while also partly eschewing it. Each of these communities is further fragmented by its own internal divisions and contradictions. For example, on the construction site there are workers, supervisors, stewards, the union, and corporations, each of which have their own particular interests and places in the hierarchy. With Jane, Joe is more of a bottom if he has a role in that relationship at all, while with Ann he’s a top. The experimental writing community has its own divisions: “Joe was once told, ‘If you want to talk about class you can bear that cross, but we won’t cop to any guilt trip you want to lay on us. If you’re not interested in derailing standard English, fine. No one’s asking you to;” (106). In a recent email exchange about class and the San Francisco Bay Area writing scene, Amnasan wrote:
To talk about class issues was considered an attempt at one-ups-man-ship, trying to get special attention through an illegitimate means that no one was going to take seriously. A lot of middle class writers felt that if a working class person learned from the books and resources that they themselves had learned from they became middle class with the same privileges....I think the basic attitude among a lot of language writers was that the social class of an individual had become too hard to distinguish with all the different kinds of labor and vocations people now had so that class was no longer valid as criteria in regard to individuals and so it was simply no longer interesting (June 16, 2007 email from Mike Amnasan).
If the experimental writing community doesn’t provide an arena for Joe to locate himself, neither do the academic or governmental data: “I see myself in regard to articles and books about wage workers as not even normal enough to equal the common assumptions that come with statistics” (138). Joe isn’t fully comfortable for long in any of the places he finds himself: “In the larger scheme of things, I’m a fish out of water” (85). The disjunction between the first and third person narration in the text literalizes this displacement. Is the first person narrator, Joe, the character the third person narration creates? And who is the reader addressed by the text?
Like other New Narrative texts, a writing project that coalesced in the early 1980s around San Francisco Bay Area writers--Robert Glück, Bruce Boone, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Francesca Rosa, and Camille Roy, and Amnasan himself–this novel explores language, genre and the place of narrative, representation, the subject, and the experience of everyday living, all of which were constructed as problematic and contaminated in the wake of Marxist and structuralist understandings of history and language, particularly as they were explored by the Bay Area’s Language Writers. Like the work of many of the New Narrative writers mentioned above, Amnasan’s writing is shaped in part by his engagement with and critique of the ideas and practices of the Language Writers, including Bruce Andrews and Ron Silliman.(2) Amnasan does not jettison the subject, a subject who is a subject of discourse but also of feeling, experience, community and discontinuity; he opts for expenditure and risk, exposing the negativity that constitutes experience with its blind spots and in all of its confusion, humiliation, frustration The writing is cool in tone, carefully controlling a rage against the machine, yet simultaneously unafraid of exposing lies, guilt, envy, and shame, what Sianne Ngai has called “ugly feelings.” The narrator states: “I never expected to be very happy, and so the pleasures in my life seem extra” (51). Like other New Narrative writers too, Amnasan addresses the reader on multiple occasions in such a way that the reader feels implicated, put on the spot. This address to the reader is coupled with an exposure on the part of the narrator, a display of abjection and then a question, almost a demand of the reader as in this example: “Everything I’ve done up to this point could be viewed as a series of false steps, or weak moves, that can never make up for not having taken the appropriate course for gaining the attention I’d wanted in the first place. Do you understand what I’m saying?” (44). Sometimes too the narration exposes how power makes use of silence before it implicates the reader : “I’m trying to express a conflict of interest. For me to be openly rejected might call attention to the way things are done. That can’t happen. You see what I’m saying?” (106).
LIAR references a debate in the Bay Area writing community that played out in the 1980s and 1990s at readings and talks and in print, manifesting in one particular instance in an article entitled “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject” written by Ron Silliman and appearing in 1988 in the journal Socialist Review. In this article, Silliman introduces the work of several Bay Area poets including: Aaron Shurin, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lisa Bernstein, Leslie Scalapino, Bob Perelman, Beverly Dahlen, Nathaniel Mackey, and Carol Dorf. He situates these writers as having different audiences and readers while also positing that for some, their relationship to literary experimentation particularly vis-a-vis formal innovations and the construction or deconstruction of the subject is “more conventional.” He does this by setting up a dichotomy between the “subjects of history” who are largely white, heterosexual males and others who have been history’s objects–women, people of color, sexual minorities, etc. Silliman writes:
One political content of the poem is its constitution of a specific social subject out of multiple discourses, a subject that may be decentralized, destabilized, or even fragmented. The ways in which this content manifests itself differs dramatically according to the author’s (and the audience’s) location in the larger social body. Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history–many white male heterosexuals, for example–are apt to challenge all that is supposedly ‘natural’ about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of this spectrum are poets who do not identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers–women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the ‘marginal’–have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with notable difference as to whom is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.
Leslie Scalapino, one of the writers whose work is discussed by Silliman, objected to his construction of the field of experimentation as the provenance of white male heterosexuals while constructing the need for stories as belonging to everyone else, especially those on the margins. Scalapino wrote a letter in response that the Socialist Review refused to publish because Scalapino’s “language was too poetic and did not qualify as political discourse” (“What/ Person?” 52).(3) The exchange of letters between Scalapino and Silliman was eventually published as “What/Person: From An Exchange” in Poetics Journal in 1991. LIAR explicitly (and sometimes not so) refers to this debate in numerous passages and in the very premise of the book as a whole:
In an attempt to fill out my past experience I mentioned another writer, Ron, whose theories I disagreed with. I quoted him extensively in the text I had prepared, but what I had stated in my talk, back then, no longer seemed to matter. In fact Ron’s assertions have lasted the course of time in regard to my own possibilities. As he stated in regard to what he referred to as “the whole spectrum of the marginal” I have to direct my efforts toward having my story told, rather than calling into question such conventions as narrative, persona, reference. In my talk I argued against the way he had cornered the more experimental concerns for his own social group (white, heterosexual, middle class males), but I never really had a substantial position from which to question this idea. My personal story never really took on the significance of a public challenge to Ron’s theories (41).
Leslie had responded to Ron’s article even before Joe had seen it. She gave Joe the issue of Socialist Review it was published in. It’s easier to treat a blue-collar worker in the dismissive manner women have been subjected to in the past than to respond in this way to someone like Leslie, a woman with considerable standing in the writing community–even if she has felt slighted in similar ways (42).
...I’m a pretty smart guy, but I’m never going to be asked to speak about anything broader than my personal life (106).
The avant-garde will invite anyone into their ranks who has the social skills that come with a more comfortable life, but I’m not just going to write the conventional narrative expected of someone like me (85.)
LIAR is Amnasan’s challenge to a literary community that might expect him to tell his working class story but not to tell it slant. The book isn’t concerned much with plot but it is interested in narrative and the kind of inquiry that can be engaged through it: “A part of me wants things to get worse, for a plot to get exposed that would be easy for an outside-observer to identify as wrong-doing. I often feel trapped in abuse that conventional observation will never reveal” (75). While one reading suggests that this consideration of plot has to do with shady doings on the construction site, another suggests that simultaneously it references the writing community, the book LIAR and perhaps relation itself. At some point, the tactics at the construction site, in the experimental writing community and intimate relationships begin to blur and bleed: “Gale will always make our work as personal as he can. He operates through repeatedly transgressing personal boundaries. He’ll get in your face if you suggest that any exist. All rules are pliable, and the narrative of work is constantly broken up by moving us around” (101). If part of the problem of the experimental writing or any community is that “It’s a people thing, a people thing initiated where there is a lot at stake. It is the merger of friendship (whether close friendship or a version extended to include a broad network of families and friends), and professionalism, into a form of judgement that only judges normative responses of no practical use” (43), then the answer for Joe is, “a politics of the friendless. He wants institutions where people without friends can succeed there by virtue of all the policies and services in place that allow people to succeed according to what they can contribute” (98). This community of the friendless echoes Georges Bataille’s “community of those who do not have a community” and Maurice Blanchot’s “unavowable community.” Blanchot writes:
a being does not want to be recognized, it wants to be contested: in order to exist it goes towards the other, which contests and at times negates it, so as to start being only in that privation that makes it conscious (here lies the origin of its consciousness) of the impossibility of being itself, of subsisting as its ipse or, if you will, as itself as a separate individual: this way it will perhaps ex-ist, experiencing itself as an always prior exteriority, or as an existence shattered through and through, composing itself only as it decomposes itself constantly, violently and in silence (6).
Given the history of how LIAR came to be published (before its publication by Ithuriel’s Spear, the sole surviving copy of the manuscript was in the hands of Camille Roy who photocopied it for classes she was teaching), its main character’s desire for a politics of the friendless is utopian. Or is it? Does LIAR exist in published form because of a system that enables those who can contribute to do so? Or is it available because a friend has preserved a manuscript and brought it to the attention of a publisher?
The pleasure of LIAR is located in its stark poetry–the way seemingly discordant sections move rapidly from construction sites to sex and domestic scenes to sci-fi and philosophical meditations about class, meaning, identity, writing. And there is the sex too (with Ann), or the lack of it (with Jane) and its relationship to Joe’s sense of himself and his subject position in the writing community: “Sex is never only about the two of them [Joe and Jane]. Joe is limited in his ability to go against traditional writing because of his need to talk about his own background and the work he does for a living and this effects how he looks even as a sexual being” (21). While the narrator asserts that Ann’s “voluptuousness is on the verge of breaking into parts” (115) he slyly asserts that “she wouldn’t demand that the realistic means for producing sensation be circumvented for the sake of a larger picture of what intimacy should be about” (108). The secret sex with Ann is predicated on restraint and its corollary abandon, an S/M dynamic that structures most if not all relation in this book. It is the lie–at once a narration and its disruption–that holds the book together.
Language is both the problem–an insufficient and inadequate means for exploring, constructing, and exposing life in all its complexity–and one of the tools available with which to stage an intervention: “My use of language is guilty, and yet I try to use language to absolve my guilt” (44). If disruption and inconsistency, lies and artifice are the architecture of the text, they are related to a subject’s experience on several levels. These forms of discontinuity and estrangement arise out of: necessity (“I write narrative after work in the way one might expect of someone who does construction work” 59); memory, that disruptive process that organizes experience otherwise (“...the third type of memory....returns at a greater frequency the more it is emotionally reinforced. This is the memory more likely to produce odd combinations. Because it is not within a chain of causal relations, it can return out of context”  and “Joe is distracted by the impertinent return of thoughts that only return by virtue of his individual sense of what is important, thoughts that have no appropriate place for their expression, what he often calls lying” 45); and Joe’s liminal subject status, between and out of context everywhere. Formally the text enacts, via the rhyme of themes and structures, these disruptions that are at once discontinuous and problematic and the source of the writing itself.
Some of the ways that contiguous sections rhyme with one another include: the structure of hearing as in “‘I don’t know,’ George replied. ‘I can just tell you what I heard’” and “Jane, laughing in incredulity, tells Joe that she overheard her supervisor talking to a friend from another department, discussing whether or not some job candidate came from a ‘good family’” (32). Another rhyme occurs with stories: in one paragraph Joe is licking Jane’s pussy in a public park: “As she looks around she tries to think of a story, to tell David, to explain why she’s late arriving home.” This is immediately followed by a paragraph about the construction site: “The stories of all four were consistent. They said that Wayne should’ve known better than to start them working or replacing the duct above the driveway” (47). Are these stories excuses or evidence, or both? There’s pleasure to be had in tracing the narrative exposed by the recurring photographs and images Jane has on her desk or expresses an interest in: they include figures submerged, sometimes up to their necks, in water. Are these figures a trope for Jane’s position or Joe’s? Or perhaps it is the narrative itself? Two-thirds of the way into the book there is a shift; suddenly: “Jane sifts through her photographs, fingering through a card file, until she comes to a photo of a shark painted on the wall of a dilapidated building. She pulls this photo out and places it in front of her on the desk” (88).
Like many New Narrative texts, LIAR uses prose that works like poetry and manages to have the best of all possible worlds. It mobilizes the devices of various discourses and genres--poetry, criticism, roman a clef, narrative--while it recasts them as provisional, contingent, suspect. LIAR fearlessly faces the gulf between who we want to be and who we are, as well as what others, we ourselves, language, and the social make determinate. It is a writing out of context, one that doesn’t locate the truth in any particular story, but demands multiple and differing, partial narratives: “There’s no limit to what can be added, what can be factored into a judgement of this kind. It can continue for his whole life, with no conclusion” (19).
1. There is a long history of interest in class issues and literature in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Left Write Conference organized by Bruce Boone and Steve Abbott in 1981 to bring together Left oriented writers to work on a common agenda explored class issues. Karen Brodine, author of Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking: Poems 1978-1987 co-founded the Women Writers Union in San Francisco and was a national leader and San Francisco organizer for Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party; and the language writers explored issues of class, particularly from a Marxist perspective. In addition, class and work have been the subject of a number of publications and discussions within the experimental literary scene in the San Francisco Bay Area. A partial listing includes: Soup edited by Steve Abbott, Ottotole, edited by Mike Amnasan, Tripwire Issue Number 4 Winter 2000-2001, eds. Yedda Morrison and David Buuck; HOW2 Forum on Class & Innovative Writing, Vol 1, Number 2, September 1999, eds Kathy Lou Schultz and Robin Tremblay-McGaw (also reprinted in Lipstick Eleven Number 2); HOW2 Panel on Class & Innovative Writing, San Francisco Art Institute, December 5, 1999 (with Kathy Lou Schultz, Dodie Bellamy, Camille Roy, Robert Glück, Robin Tremblay-McGaw); in addition, Myung Mi Kim and Kevin Magee had a talk series at their home in the El Cerrito when they lived there in the 90s and at least one of these events was dedicated to a discussion of class. Kevin Killian affirms that there was a photocopied newsletter produced to accompany these talks.
2. The term New Narrative first appeared in 1981 in the journal SOUP, edited by Steve Abbott. In this journal, Bruce Boone, criticizes Language Writing; he writes, “But it isn’t what you would call an engaged writing and as a movement it suffers from some serious defects for this reason.” Amnasan notes : “I’m sure I had plenty of arguments with language poets, at various events, particularly Bruce Andrews” (June 16, 2007 email).
3. This claim on the part of the journal interestingly constructs Scalapino’s language as inappropriate, too poetic and perhaps then, too experimental for the context of a political journal (though this same journal is printing poetry, including Scalapino’s own!).
Blanchot, Maurice. The Unavowable Community. Trans. Pierre Joris. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1988.
Boone, Bruce. “Language Writing: The Pluses & Minuses of the New Formalism.” Soup, 1981:2-9.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Silliman, Ron. “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject.” Socialist Review, 1988: 61-68.
Scalapino, Leslie and Ron Silliman. “What/Person: From an Exchange.” Poetics Journal, 1991:51-68.
Note: Many thanks to Robert Gluck and Mike Amnasan for their valuable input on this review.
Mike reading at Modern Times Bookstore, San Francisco, June 12, 2007. Photo courtesy of Francesca Rosa.
This review appears in the latest lovely edition of Crayon Magazine, edited by Andrew Levy and Roberto Harrison.
A Reading 18 – 20
Instance Press, $12
ISBN 13: 978-0-9679854-4-2
ISBN 10: 0-9679854-4-7
[Note: The edition – which I believe is paper only – apparently carries two ISBN numbers, reflective, I am told, of a change going on in the system].
It is hard to approach Beverly Dahlen’s considerable project, A Reading, without coming up short with a minimal focus on a limited number of possibilities, while, at the same time, find much else slipping out of reach. The work’s ambition and breadth, one that multifariously propels - including contradicts itself - among its propositions, arguments and struggles has been now an unfolding process since the early 1980’s.
In the interests of full disclosure, I must say – as director of Momo’s Press – I published A Reading 1- 7 in 1985. Subsequently, Chax Press published, 8 – 10, in 1992, and, Potes and Poets, 11 – 17 in 1989. The current Instance Press volume, published in 2006, represents work accomplished between 1984 and 1986! My impression from Beverly Dahlen is her work on A Reading continues well into the nineties. However, I suspect, it is still possible to imagine that, in terms A Reading, it is work that it is still in process, one never intended to be defined in terms of closure, particularly of any formal sort. It was considered a continuous, unfolding work from the start. The good news, in terms of readership, Charles Alexander’s Chax Press has agreed to continue publishing whatever number of books will remain in the project.
Good news because A Reading is considered by many to be among the most seriously engaged writing projects during the past 25 years! This piece is not about to take on the ambition of exploring the breadth of the entire work to date. Minimally, however, one must start with the concept of “A Reading” which is, simply enough, one in which the poet is making a both critical and imaginative reading of the contents of its time. Within that scope of contents is/are the boundless interface and rub of intellectual argument, the news with its politics, the documenta of personal observation and occurrence, as well as the constant issue of the ways in which words and/or text will signify presence, rather than, say, a labyrinth of veiled allusions and/or rhetorical falseness. Or, as Dahlen might put it in almost rare, romantic frame, to make a writing during which the dictionary dances in a new silver dress. In fact, in the instance of A Reading, 18 – 21, no little amount of attention is to the ramifications (political, personal and otherwise) of language that - in its deceptive use of one sort of charade or other – is frequent cover for barbaric loss and pain. Or, on a most primal level, the wound that the “father”, in no matter what guise, would rather rifle than address. Indeed, part of the attention, the commitment of this volume is to account for the father.
It is the courage of A Reading to be “unrepentant.” The language refuses to lie down ‘with the lamb’ and join up with the father, to speak his language, obey his orders. There is a cataclysmic loss of faith – first from the church, and then variously from psychological, medical, corporate and political orders.
...those crude bones wrapped in your second-hand jeans are as unrepentant as any bizarre saint or martyr who never stepped in the same river twice...
A Reading, indeed, is the act of a disobedient.
Everything – as with her reflections in “18” on Barry Watten’s argument in his then well-known essay, “The XYZ or Reading (Negativity and Diane Ward” – is provisional. Indeed her texts – though they may echo, a tone reoccur – never step in the same river twice. The creation of an accurate language, the distancing from linguistically coded operations, becomes the ethic by which one can, at best, create an unfolding measure of survival – and, in the case of the writing here, what is astonishing is the velocity combined with a felt intellect with which the words weave and unweave from sequence to sequence, attention to attention.
The context of this work is the early eighties. Politically, the civil wars and American “covert” interventions in El Salvador and Nicaragua constitute daily news. “...Not every Latino loves magic realism...” (P. 62) Intellectually, French theorists of multiple stripes (Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida, etc.) and “Language Poets” are controlling and/or opening much of the discourse. Among leading edge feminist poets, in which the struggle was to make a language that would violate the given and permit the exploration and emergence of texts – counter-formal, counter-repressive, in combination with an unfettered range of sentiments and ironies – texts that will reflect a freedom that is not male-bound, but both expansive and inclusive. Beverly, Frances Jaffer and Kathleen Fraser started (How)ever, the feminist, critical, literary newsletter during this period.
How does the father appear? At least, in terms of the work, we are not talking of her own father. It’s not even a father with a physiological shape. Ironically enough, it seems an un-gendered father that varies from the presence of nausea in everyday life, say, the anonymous, computer generated letter in a mass mailing, to a figure much more pernicious, someone who performs barbaric acts, but disappears under the guise of men, ordinary men having a kind drink at the local bar. In the manner of invisible Central American death squads, we get the intonations of the first Bush regime:
after a decent interlude the appeal started again a steady
hammering in the eaves troughs of the State Department
before the rainy season began. the evidence was stiffened
by an eyewitness account of unusual proportions and it
was popularly believed that the borders were breached
in a corresponding tone of voice. however the vote was
inconclusive and the election was reshuffled in favor of
frequent dictators. there will always be someone
who fills the bill. children bathing their bloody stumps
in backcountry creeks will dub him uncle but they mature
more quickly in tropical climes. confirmation awaits
inspection by international teams of authorized observers.
it was a dark and stormy night. someone knocked at the door.
thunder muttered morbidly and the tossing trees were fitfully
lit by convoys grinding up the road. in this outpost of
civilization we are once again testing the theory of the hero
who must be invincible since (a) he was born an orphan and or
(b) he was born the youngest son and (c) he is a very foolish
fellow. since appearances are deceiving he will submit quite
willingly to your questions. penetrating his rustic innocence
as a sinister disguise your obligation is clear. he will be
dispatched along with his family and livestock in the ritual
happy ending. tune him out. have another beer.
(Page 63, “20”)
It’s hard not to appreciate Beverly’s deeply ingrained sense of the American West – its cover of righteousness and destiny - particularly the ways in which its kind, pastoral religious myth (well meaning, and all of that) is constantly breached whether here or abroad, particularly the ways in which the contrivance of innocence is split asunder – with unacknowledged damage:
we were sitting in the skirts of the church with a wicker picnic
basket among us and the floor came up through the gloom to meet me...
It’s hard not to write of A Reading without acknowledging the bravery of the process, its public and historic sense of resonance. Not many writers that I can name, particularly women, have gone out on the edges and taken the responsibility from which Dahlen writes. Both Howe sisters do come to mind.
Yet, without being heavy handed, the work is not gratuitously driven. There is a soul in the balance – one, as one reads and grows to believe, a soul as much ours as that of the writer.
There is both a fearlessness and vulnerability here that feeds the authenticity of the language, but it is not without its own wounds and costs:
The desire for meaning fills me, to produce meaning, fills me with
dread and anxiety...
Or, as she later puts it,
...what was not autobiographical was the art part ...
Yet, it is “the art part” – with its unstated, implied counterpart “the hard part” - the rhythm, the eye for detail, the historical/myth resonances in the ear, the sure footed knowledge of folklore and its pedestrian music(s), that – along with the intensity of feeling, the unwavering moral sense of disturbance – that drive and elevate the language here. A Reading, from its origins to this present volume, provide us with a unique profile on a history (ours) unfolding with and before us.
Crayon may be ordered through Small Press Distribution.
Bruce at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco 2007
It’s been a while--has it been decades?--since I first met Bev Dahlen. There we were on the sidewalk ignoring the rain and being drenched to the bone. I can’t recall any of the topics, only the amazing vital energy we had in conversation together. Finally we noticed and realized: we needed to be out of the rain. Should we try Bob Gluck who lived nearby? We should and did. These were the post hippie days so people did things unannounced—we received shelter, food and dry clothing from Bob, as if a matter of course. That’s how things started. Personally.
Bev was nearing the end, not of her hippie but of her boho period, and drenched by the rain did she seem a bit impoverished, or bag-lady-ish? So be it. Her grouchiness became her, it kept her grounded. It contained both the wit and brilliance that makes them so common-sense. And full of compassion.
Intellectualism is one side. The sky-side you might say. Or Transcendance. The other was the impoverishment that grounds it. Through this world I used Bev to help me enter the Other—but still a citizen of this one. That was certainly one of Blake’s aspirations and Flannery O’Connor’s too. Bev is in good company. To demand that the ecstatic sky-glories of one world remain simply the flip side of the impoverishment of our own world? One grows out from the other—as the other grows this. Osiris grows in the dark as Bev showed in her Egyptian poems just as in decline that light produces dark.
Here I’ll fast forward a bit. At a reading a couple of years ago I applied to her bag-lady in her 18 Sonnets the Johnsonian term “dyspeptic.” She giggled. Sometimes I think all the ideas in this little note on Bev are contained in the mixed bag of her giggles. There can be compartmentalization in this world—and among those compartmentalizations are giggles
To show the coincidentia oppositorum—the overlap of opposites—found in Bev’s vatic thinking, her sibylline thinking I’d almost say—can only be to frame the conversation biographically.
The dreary home-coming. Going home from her job teaching newcomers, Bev inevitably took the Mission bus. What a bleak postindustrial landscape can be revealed there! What calls out for a whole inventory of smaller darknesses: like dyspepsia, mutterings, ramblings, curses. Bev—who sometimes to those who don’t know her—can look at a distance like only a sweet old lady. Protest against this world is inevitable, necessary. To reach the other world, you must rant, and rant against the spiritual archons responsible for such urban desolation. Hell-streets passed through by a bag lady whose voice turns up not just in her 18 Sonnets but everywhere in her writing.
This is really the opposite of Gregory Corso ending one poem of his with the following: “Life—the Big Lie!” If you can’t laugh at a line like that—what can you do? It always sends me personally into howls of laughter. The problem of vaticism then is the issue of how not to get trapped in a non-relation of this world and the other. Yes this world is truly a place of desolation. But to the vatic soul, like Bev’s, this opens on another that while other, coincides with it. It is not separate.
I mentioned the connection with O’Connor. Between the vatic urbanism of Bev and the rural inmpoverishment of Flannery O’Connor there is something familiar. In O’Connor the red raw hills of the beginning of stories and the violence of endings landscaped with the jagged lines of pine trees. The transcendence of the other world is this world’s immanence. Only starting by using scraps of paper, words from the Mission St. gutter, vatic comes to mean how dirty and ecstatic coincide. Ragged lines of pines line the landscape—against a sun taking over all.
Hence the Egyptian Poems. The primary statement of the Other World in Bev—Dendor and Luxor, the Book of the Dead—and this made physically beautiful by a choice of beautiful papers, scraps of gold leaf, fine typesetting. Instead of Mission St. looking up at it, it is looking down at Mission St. Neither denying either. Neither being separate from the other yet also neither being identical.
Bev uses this Gnosticism as a set of usages both of content, or teaching, and of form, or technique. Helen only seems to remain at Troy while in actuality her real body remains in Egypt. You might compare, though Bev doesn’t, the two Jesuses of the Nag Hammadi tradition. A fake Jesus, a Jesus appearance is nailed to the cross and—this nothingness dies an agonizing death. While the true Jesus hovering above like a bird of prey, laughs at the masses’ credulity. But can the true Jesus and the false one be entirely separated?—is the question I’d put in Bev’s mouth for her, if she’d let me.
To hold together two divergent realities in the same place and time, with neither superceding either. Flaubert will have none of this—it is either/or or neither/nor but not both/and. When the deluded old lady, dying, sees her parrot as the Holy Spirit, for Flaubert the bird must be either just a bird or if the Holy Spirit, then just the Holy Spirit. Bev undertakes this battle against dualism.
I can only briefly mention A Reading—her chef-d’oevre. Similar energies are at work as the wind blows swirling about you—and it’s up to you to catch on.
But the technique can vary. I’ll give only one example here. The way the Egyptian Poems coincide with the ascent visions of Nag Hammadi Gnosticism. There is a great deal of prominence given to the technical tool of question and answer. Sometimes put in different ways. Bev will just put a question for instance, then begin a single line/paragraph with the word “Explain.”
It is similar to the usages of this tool in the ascent poems of Nag Hammadi. A Gnostic candidate reaches the Keeper of the Gates (Bev retains the word “keeper” as she does “watcher” for instance) and before progressing further must answer questions. “Who are you” “I am a child of starry heaven” reads one of these ancient questions that ultimately is found on one of the gold plates of Pythagorean mysticism. There are other examples but I don’t have time. But clearly Bev has read her Robert Duncan!
Bev’s great Hellmouth essay. It must have shocked the more lady-like among feminists when it appeared. For besides being a sink and abyss, a black hole to nothingness, it would be strange for the reader not to recognize it as the vagina. Out of this darkness—again, a by now familiar dynamic—comes light, but less familiar—from that light, the dark again. In the essay Bev goes about her business with a frankness that seemed to many at the time as obscene.
Let me just sum up by saying that Bev implaces herself firmly in the vatic tradition. Hence the mention not just of Blake or O’Connor—but we can go a lot further back—to Cumae, the seat of the great Sibyll. From her books she prophecized Rome’s futures. (Today the tunnel to her cave near Naples can still be seen, tufa rock all in octagonals.)
Bev has been a friend and a teacher both. Her great contribution—a zen contribution—has been to help bridge that western dualism that began with Georges Bataille in the west, right after WWII. Bev has made that dualism a little less lop-sided than it might have been, I think. I write in praise today of my teacher and my friend and in praise of writing that has influenced so many.
Beverly Dahlen and Charles Alexander
A Beverly Dahlen Fete!
On Saturday afternoon Small Press Traffic honored the writing of Beverly Dahlen. Members of the SPT community read selections of Dahlen’s work and discussed her contributions to experimental writing in the Bay Area and beyond. Beverly Dahlen then closed the event with a reading of a number of poems, some of which have never been published or read publicly.
The event was very moving as each participant(including two--Ron Silliman and Rachel Blau Du Plessis-- who were not present but whose tributes were read by David Buuck) spoke of his or her encounter with Dahlen's work.
Stephen Vincent spoke about being Dahlen's first publisher and meeting her in 1967. Lauren Shufran talked about her ongoing relationship with Dahlen's work and read one of Dahlen's poems dated on the day of Lauren's birth. Charles Alexander, the director of Chax Press and and early publisher of Dahlen, read a poem of his own that could not have been written, he said, without his reading of Dahlen's work. Jocelyn Saidenberg read from A Reading 8 and discussed Dahlen's generative negativity, her uncanny reading and reader as radical. Bruce Boone spoke of his first encounter with Dahlen in the rain and their subsequent sojourn at Bob Gluck's house where Bob offered them shelter, dry clothing and food. Bruce talked about how the dirty vatic and the ecstatic coincide in Dahlen's work, work that is characterized by both intellectualism and an impoverishment that is a grounding force. Elizabeth Robinson passed out lovely stamped mementos, mini broadsides on tags that are 4 inches by 2 inches. Robinson talked about Dahlen's engagement with the real--the daily concrete, the complex ecosystem of her work and the mystery that it entails. Rob Halpern spoke of Beverly Dahlen's Devotion Toward the Real, reading her work through Dahlen's engagement with Jack Spicer and Emily Dickinson. Rob and Beverly have been part of an ongoing reading group at Mark Linenthal's home and Beverly had brought some Spicer and Dickinson in to read. Rob also produced copies of some of Dahlen's work published in Gallery Works in the seventies and nineties, including "The Imaginary Conversation" in which Bruce Boone, Robin Blaser and Jack Spicer figure. Kathleen Fraser spoke of her meeting with Dahlen through Mark Linenthal and Frances Jaffer and their subsequent establishment of the journal HOW(ever). Finally, Beverly read a number of never-before-heard poems.
The event was revelatory. The speakers were thoughtful and their readings of Dahlen's work overlapped and radiated in mutliple directions. I will be returning to Beverly Dahlen's books soon. They are on my desk.
Congratulations Beverly and many thanks to all the engaged and moving responses to Dahlen's work. Bravo.
About Beverly Dahlen (courtesy of Small Press Traffic's web site):
A native of Portland, Oregon, Beverly Dahlen has lived in San Francisco for many years. Her first book, Out of the Third, was published by Momo’s Press in 1974. Two chapbooks, A Letter at Easter (Effie’s Press, 1976) and The Egyptian Poems (Hipparchia Press, 1983) were followed by the publication of the first volume of A Reading in 1985 (A Reading 1—7, Momo’s Press). Since then, three more volumes of A Reading have appeared. Chax Press published A Reading 8—10 (1992); Potes and Poets Press: A Reading 11—17 (1989); Instance Press: A Reading 18—20 (2006). Chax Press also published the chapbook A-reading Spicer & Eighteen Sonnets in 2004. Ms. Dahlen has also published work in numerous periodicals and anthologies. A forthcoming issue of Crayon will publish poetry and her essay on beauty.
Poetry: by bird, by wind,
by animal, by fire
Teaching children poetry. I suppose it really comes down to a passport I found outside the dentist’s office that felt like a miracle to find. This passport made by a child at the arboretum explained the four ways a seed is carried—by bird, by wind, by animal, by fire. Poems are seeds. I have been mysteriously given the zeal to carry poetry to children.
I started teaching poetry to children when my daughter was in kindergarten. I felt there wasn’t enough poetry being taught in the schools. I began volunteering in her classroom. Other classrooms asked me to teach poetry, and one thing led to another so that I began officially teaching for California Poets in the Schools. I’ve been teaching now with CPITS for seven years. I work regularly at the same four schools and teach kindergarten through fifth grade. Every grade is different and offers its individual challenges. In kindergarten we play with poetry verbally, but the challenge is the kid’s actual writing—one or two words, sometimes three or four words. These words become POWERFUL to the children. If you were given one word to write down—what would it be? And if it took your whole body and mind and heart and nervous system to write it—imagine the power. Some kids can’t write without tipping out of their chairs. Some kids can’t write without running around the room five times. Some kids can’t write without hitting another child. This can be very chaotic and trying at times—but when the word comes out usually everyone settles down. We have a reading circle at the end of our writing session so that everyone passes the talking stick (microphone) and reads their poem or says their poems if they can’t read it.
The class is usually divided up into three parts: the poem and the lesson, writing of poems, reading of poems. I use the basic format first used by Kenneth Koch where you start the class with a poem that the children read with me. This grounds me as a teacher. When I read the poem with the kids I know exactly where I am. As Goethe said—he that wants to understand the poem, must go to the land of poetry. The poem puts us in the same land. I often envy the children. I was hungry for poetry as a child. I memorized Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I made my mother read it over and over to me. I also memorized many Psalms. I remember feeling like I couldn’t get enough poetry. I think children who are taught poetry now are lucky because they read amazing poets like Rilke in kindergarten and take them to heart. The poem of Rilke I use with little kids that works so well is called “Sadness.” “I think that the star glittering above me has been dead for a million years.” A dead star—the children feel this. And towards the end of the poem: “I would like to step out of my heart and go walking beneath the enormous sky.” I ask, “Why does he want to step out of his heart?” The kids know. They shout out—“because he’s sad.” We talk about intense feelings and how they make us want to get away from ourselves.
One of my favorite activities to do with the children is to make word collages because it makes them more aware of individual words and juxtaposition. They cut words from magazines and newspapers. Words become valued and treasured. The kids barter with other kids for the words they want. They are delighted by what poems they assemble. I like the chaos of this activity. Words get stuck on clothes, in hair, on the bottom of their shoes. They put words into their pockets and they get carried out to recess. When children get done with their own poems they become “word searchers” for other children. I usually give the younger kids a starting phrase for them to finish. Here are some lines from first grade collages: “A poem is a broken path in the water.” “A poem is a dream beneath our head.” “A poem is a shadow behind your hands.” From a class of second graders: “My heart closes the flower next to the cold snow.” “My heart grows bigger and bigger—then it opens up and shines.” From a class of third graders: “A poem is a target zooming into readers’ minds. “A poem is one hundred apples running on a tree.”
“ Life is
is is is is is is is is is is is is
is is is is is is is is is is is is
an endless road.”
I think the biggest challenge in my teaching is trying to keep the writing exciting and fresh. I find the older kids get, the more they hold on to a standardized test voice that gets drilled into them at school. They become more peer conscious which has a way of stifling their voices also. But my hope is that as they grow older they will remember poetry as a force in their lives they can always return to. “Spring boils happiness into everything. “The soup’s leg destroyed a small café and then rampaged the neighborhood.” “Love’s jaw is spelled with 4 letters.”
One of the places I teach poetry is in North Beach, a community that has the tradition of celebrating poetry. At the end of the school year the different grade levels have poetry readings in the park, the Café at the SF Art Institute and the poetry room at City Lights Book Store. The children feel connected to each other and the community through their poetry. In a fourth grader’s thank you letter to City Lights she wrote, “That poetry room was magnificent. I loved everything about it. If there was dust, I’d expect I’d love the dust.” In the end, my hope is that the seeds of poetry are planted in the children and grow as the children grow into teenagers and adults.
Sally Doyle lives in North Beach and is a poet-teacher in the Poets in the Schools Program in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in How(ever), Temblor, Avec, Chain, Five Fingers Review, Central Park, O Anthology, Ariel, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Under the Neath is from Leave Books. She is currently at work on a book called The Red Sea Notebooks.
Kathy Lou Schultz’s Belladonna chapbook #115
Biting Midge: Works in Prose begins with a quote from Bob Perelman: “To think in sentences leads to novel specimens of desire.” In Biting Midge, Kathy Lou Schultz is indeed thinking and writing in sentences that desire.
“She said, ‘These are the two lips that I use to speak to you in the evening. They cover my pretty white teeth.’ This impressed me. My needs were simple: a pillow to lay my head on at night, and an approximation of myself to help me know my location....At night I say, ‘Will you hold me?’ and she says, ‘Not tonight honey, it’s too hot.’
At night I form myself to her body after she falls asleep.
At night I invent a childhood.
At night I lie awake in my little box.”
The book begins with abjection, hunger, and an exploration of the body. It introduces a thematics of entrances and exits that haunt each of the pieces: “The outline of my body is an approximation of what enters and exits. The container is full of memories that I carry from place to place, but do not discuss with my lover.”
In the author’s notes at the back of the book, Schultz writes that “these poems are dedicated to the cities of San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Memphis in which I have found both respite and trials.” The book includes “Dear,” “Or if she would fly apart,” “Extra extra,” “Blood,” “At First Blush,” “World Without End,” “Happy Birthday, America,” ‘Story About a Man,” “Monument,” “The Unplanned,” and “Left.”
One of my favorite pieces in this slender book playfully joins the body, sex, gender, journalism and giants of modernist poetry–some more well known (Eliot, Pound, Williams) than others (Loy). I reproduce it for your reading pleasure here:
for Jessica and Aliki
Boys learn best at a room temperature of 68 degrees; for girls, it’s 74
degrees. I read it in the newspaper. When I read something in the
newspaper I write it in my book and then I learn it. Writing is different
than speaking: like all that cacophony in “The Waste land” (bawk! bawk!
Who can stand it?) is different from Williams, who read the newspaper.
Williams built a city out of language and then the people had nowhere to
live except under the peaked roof of the capital “A.” Mina Loy wrote: “We
might have given birth to a butterfly/ With the daily news/ Printed in
blood on its wings.” An old geezer once said, “Make it new!” Calm down,
geezer, the boys are reading your poems day and night, all the better to
be erudite, and I’ll try to be a better friend. Right now the new and the
news are standing on the corner in short pants singing, “Extra! Extra!
Read all about it!”
And so you should! You can find Belladonna books here.