Re-reading Madame Bovary

I have just finished reading Lydia Davis's new and thrilling translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, published by Flaubert in 1856 in six installments in La Revue de Paris. I first read Madame Bovary many years ago, maybe twenty. I no longer have the book and probably didn't then, having, in all likelihood, read a library copy, so I don't know which translation I read. What I do recall is that, for me then, it was unremarkable.

This time around I am dazzled. While the translation is of paramount importance, in my own case, I suspect that there is something about reading and having grown as a reader that is relevant to my new appreciation. And, since Madame Bovary is in fact in many ways, about reading, what could be more appropriate. There is more to reading than learning to recognize words. Or, to quote (and then revise) a Latin phrase that the pharmacist Homais uses, Fabricando fit faber, age quod agis. Davis provides a note about this phrase as follows: "Practice makes perfect." or, more literally, "It is by making that you become a maker, whatever it is that you do." It is by reading that one becomes a reader.

Madame Bovary (MB) begins with the first person plural pronoun: "We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk." This mysterious "we" soon disappears into the third person, but is one of  the many contributing strangenesses of the novel, the oddities that make it difficult to locate the source(s) of narration. It begins with Charles Bovary's childhood, a childhood unlike Emma's. While at school, Charles "work[s] conscientiously, looking up all the words in the dictionary and tak[es] great pains" though "he had almost no elegance in  his constructions" (5). While Emma read novels at home and religious texts at the convent where she also listened to sermons, Charles' grew up in a household with a father who "little concerned with literature, said it was not worth the trouble!" (7).   Emma, on the other hand, 'had read Paul and Virginia" and Balzac and George Sand, and at the convent, "the metaphors of betrothed, spouse, heavenly lover, and marriage everlasting that recur in sermons stirred unexpectedly sweet sensations in the depths of her soul" (31). Emma is a reader; Charles is not, though we read that as a student he sometimes picked up the Anacharsis; Davis writes that this is possibly Jean Jacques Barthelemy's The Travels of Anacharsis the Younger in Greece, "a learned imaginary travel journal and one of the first historical novels." Instead of considering Emma's reading as a weakness, a liability, the source of her trouble, perhaps it is worth wondering what Charles might have understood or imagined had he read more....

When Emma and Léon meet for the first time, the discussion turns to reading:
"My wife doesn't take much interest in that [gardening]," said Charles. "Even though she has been told she ought to exercise, she'd rather stay in her room all the time and read."

"Like me," replied Léon; "what could be better, really, than to sit by the fire in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the windowpanes, and the lamp burns?..."

"Oh, yes," she said, her great, dark wide-open eyes fixed on him." (72)

For Léon, Emma "was the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every drama, the vague she of every volume of poetry" (235).

Later, at Emma's deathbed, Homais and the curé argue about religion, largely through reference to various texts:

"'Read Voltaire!' one was saying; 'read d'Holbach, read the Encyclopeida!'"

"'Read the Letters of Some Portuguese Jews!' the other was saying; 'read The Proof of Christianity, by the former magistrate Nicholas!'" (294)

Madame Bovary is constructed around disparate understandings of words, reading, and the world, but enmeshed in all of this, too, are the strange and mobile materials of gender. Famously , there is Flaubert's claim, "Je suis Madame Bovary!" Of course, it was Charles Baudelaire who first identified Emma Bovary's strange androgyny in his review of the book. He wrote:

Il ne restait plus à l'auteur, pour accomplir le tour de force dans son entier, que de se dépouiller (autant que possible) de son sexe et de se faire femme. Il en est résulté une merveille ; c'est que, malgré tout son zèle de comédien, il n'a pas pu ne pas infuser un sang viril dans les veines de sa créature, et que madame Bovary, pour ce qu'il y a en elle de plus énergique et de plus ambitieux, et aussi de plus rêveur, madame Bovary est restée un homme. Comme la Pallas armée, sortie du cerveau de Zeus, ce bizarre androgyne a gardé toutes les séductions d'une âme virile dans un charmant corps féminin.

You can read Baudelaire's review here.  There is much to say about the way gender structures and unravels distinctions between characters, the project of the novel and its deployment of narrativity. But, for now, these little observances:

"Charles was not a wit by nature, he had not been brilliant during the wedding festivities....the next day, however, he seemed another man. It was he whom one would have taken for the virgin the day before..." (26).

"Then, a hundred steps further on, she stopped again; and through her veil, which fell obliquely from her man's hat down over her hips, her face could be seen in bluish transparency, as though she were swimming under azure waves" (139).

Later, it is Léon who seems to be Emma's mistress: "She wanted him to dress all in black and grow a little pointed beard on his chin so that he would resemble the portraits of Louis XIII. She wanted to see his rooms....She asked for verses, verses composed for her....He did not question her ideas; he accepted all her tastes; he was becoming her mistress more than she was his" (246).

There are also various markers of race: what Tisa Bryant calls unexplained presences:

"She had read Paul and Virginia, and she had dreamed of the little bamboo house, the Negro Domingo, the dog Faithful, but most of all of the sweet friendship of a good little brother who goes off to fetch red fruit for you from great trees taller than church steeples, or runs barefoot over the sand, bringing you a bird's nest" (30).
"But not being very well versed in these matters once they were beyond certain bounds, he wrote to Monsieur Boulard, Monseigneur's bookseller, to send him something particularly good for a female of high intelligence. The bookseller,with as much indifference as if he were dispatching cheap trinkets to black Africans, packaged up a hodgepodge of everything then current in the religious book trade" (188).

Check out this passage in which the church in Rouen is figured by Leon's active, romantic imagination, as a gigantic boudoir:

"Leon, with a sober step, was walking close to the walls. Never had life seemed so good to him. Any minute now she would appear, charming, agitated, glancing behind her at the eyes that were following her,--in her flounced dress, her gold lorgnette, her thin little boots, all kinds of elegant refinements he had never had a taste of before, and with all the ineffable seductiveness of virtue yielding. The church, like a gigantic boudoir, was arranging itself around her; the vaults were leaning down to gather  up, in the shadows, the confession of her love; the windows shone resplendent to illuminate her face; and the censers burned so that she might appear like an angel, amid clouds of perfume" (213).

I borrowed Davis's Madame Bovary from the library, but it is a book, really, one wants to own. Enjoy.


Fiona Templeton: "Medea sings a skin of language"

What: Small Press Traffic hosted a reading by Fiona Templeton

The Setting: The Graduate Writing Studio of the California College of Arts on De Haro in San Francisco. Saturday night, December 18th, 2010. Darkish. Wind-swept. Moody. Japanese maples trembling outside the glass doors in front of which the petite Fiona Templeton stood, in black, her auburn hair pulled back, glasses on her head. Beginning with breathing. The small contemplative pond outside a black sheen. Inside: expectancy.

Thus began The Medead, Templeton's long performance piece about Medea; she called it a recuperation of the many Medeas that exist in literature and history. For example, Fiona noted that she had visited Georgia and that there Medea is associated with medicine. She skipped the reductive infanticide.

"It is a journey of the figure, not a person," Templeton told us. 

How can I tell you about how the room seemed to breathe along with Templeton, how her language split and soared, whispered, squawked, joked. Hers is a Shakespearean inventiveness. Syntax reorganized. Words uncloaked, uncorked and cast out anew, "a winding tongue." 

Here's how Templeton's web site describes The Medead:

*as a very different figure to the evil foreign woman shown by the Greeks, including little-known versions from her origin at the east of the Black Sea.

*Me Dead: a journey down into the language and action of dream and the subconscious.

*Me Dead: not myself.

*Me Dead: the price of war.

*Medea: measure, mother, mindfulness

*Medea: nobody (in the feminine)

*Medea: the genitals.

*The Medead: a night and day, a life, a journey of culture through history.

Some of the many lines that caught my attention, demanded notation follow; any mishearings and misquotations are mine own ears'.  And of course, what line breaks there are here are heard or intuited and will  need correcting once the text can be seen/read.Templeton is going to let xpoetics put up some of The Medead and I am looking forward to it and offering it up to all of you. So, stay-tuned. In the meantime, you can find out more about it on Fiona's web site here: FionaTempleton.

"Medea sings a skin language"

"restored to pieces
hung in trees"

"birds birds birds
the word birds flies around
look at you
look at you"

"singing danger meat"

"prosody arrays what wheat
we have"

"how the nightingale orphaned
of her tongue"

"words come up but
she's taken the genital idea"

"Let's ram away"

"tails spread like a fan of knives"

"whose thicket
whose thicket"

"let go your breath
and aching things"

"choral ardor
coming up from air"

Templeton's reading was one of the highlights of Small Press Traffic's recent season. Check out the forthcoming Spring season here: Small Press Traffic


Rob Halpern: "Becoming a Patient of History"

Saturday night, December 11, 2010, San Francisco welcomed home Rob Halpern at the Unitarian Center in San Francisco where Rob gave the Poetry Center's 27th George Oppen Memorial Lecture, entitled "Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen's Domesticity and the Relocation of Politics." The room was full to capacity.

Rob's talk was thrilling and offered much to ponder.

Locating his fascination with Oppen's work in the way the poems "refused to settle into difficulty or transparence," Rob noted his coming to Oppen's poetry during the late 90s, a time of "terminal cynicism" when a number of Bay Area writers found themselves between crises, the devastation of AIDS, the flowering of neo-liberalism, and the emergence of the dot com boom. Rob suggested that he and other young writers found themselves "living melancholic lives," characterized by a sense of loss and "terminal belatedness." It is in this context of disaffection that Rob and a number others--David Buuck, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Yedda Morrison, Dana Teen Lomax, and others--found themselves reading Oppen's poetry and Selected Letters.

About reading Oppen's letters and having noted the phrase “cries havoc in a small voice” from one of the letters, Rob said that:

there remains something so appealing in those words together: “cry” “small” and “havoc”— something vulnerable and adamant, uncertain, and committed to what might seem entirely unclear. It was as if there were potential dangers everywhere, dangers which the language at one’s immediate disposal often seems inadequate to name. This appealed to my own uncertainty and doubt as well as my desire for something other than what seemed at the time to be a terminal cynicism....We were “between crises” as one might speak of being between wars, but there is never really any such “between”—just the spell of an interregnum when everyone is holding breath, and waiting, and pretending to adapt to a set of conditions that seem entirely fake and everyone’s just going through the motions of being ok, while living interminably melancholic lives, having identified, on the one hand, with too many personal losses—losses I myself had not yet learned how to mourn; and on the other, with a feeling of terminal belatedness, when it didn’t seem possible to believe in anything long enough to respond to it.

Rob talked about the complex array of feelings, sincerity and ambivalence, that one finds throughout Oppen's Selected Letters. He noted that,

the [Oppen] letters provided a whole catalog of what Sianne Ngai would call weak affects, which work to register or resist the ideological saturation of social space, as well as the distortions in relation and perception that Oppen was confronting in the 1960s. But Oppen’s feelings seemed anachronistically to offer a response to the disaffection that was so infectious during the late 90s. Any one of Oppen’s weak affects seemed to offer an antidote: but the whole gamut was like an arsenal. 

With this, Rob set the stage for discussing gender in Oppen's work,

...This question concerning gender has since opened many unexpected avenues of inquiry, and has led me to believe that one can feel the work of Oppen’s middle period thinking sensually through the many submerged contours and tensions of an intensified post-war biopolitics, that is, the form politics assumes when the human condition itself, its biological and psychic substrata—from atoms and plasma, to desire and subjectivity—become the terrain of conflict, work, and investment. My sense here is that these contours and tensions become the material of Oppen’s work, from The Materials through Of Being Numerous, as they find themselves mediated—muted and amplified, clarified and distorted—through the longing and remorse of a very particular lyric subject. All this ends up making certain historical conditions of the moment audible, as Oppen himself emphasizes in his poem “Route:” “The purity of the materials, not theology, but to present the circumstances […] The context is history / Moving toward the light of conscious.” To present the circumstances and the history means to make conditions and struggles legible—and these, of course, are never pure—and I believe Oppen’s poetry was very much a part these struggles, against the grain of his repeated insistence on making his writing politically unavailable. These are biopolitical struggles: organized around the production and administration, the transformation and destruction of subjectivity and life, and they underscore what Hannah Arendt refers to as the confounding of the household and the polis in The Human Condition—a work published in 1958, the same year as Oppen returned to poetry in earnest after a notorious 25 year hiatus, during which time he sought exile, avoiding HUAC in Mexico where he raised a family. Arendt’s work echoes Oppen’s concerns, sometimes with uncanny precision. For her, the erosion of the public realm, or the common, at mid-century has everything to do with the wholesale absorption of “the household and housekeeping activities” into a sphere of social activity once referred to as politics. Arendt goes on to elaborate how the unstable border between the political life—organization of the common—and the household—care of family and self, basic necessity, survival—conditions the corporate management of so-called private interest, which then emerges as the most public of all concerns. And it is this instability I believe that one can feel in Oppen’s mid-century writing: in the “new structure of space” the work creates, conceptually and syntactically, through all its hesitations and declarations, its opacities and lacunae, its contradictions and impossibilities, all its conflicting affects and emotions. As Oppen pressures, worries, and amplifies what he refers to as his political non-availability, the work, as a sensory organ capable of cognizing material we otherwise can’t access discursively, registers precisely what he was refusing: the whole shifting terrain of what one might think to call “politics.”

Rob explained that he had developed an "indexical key" and that he is "using the archivist’s finding aid as a model, or maybe it’s more like one of Roland Barthes’s alphabetized books, or the convolutes of Benjamin’s Arcades Project" as a structure. Here is a list of his table of contents for the larger Oppen project he is working on:

Anemones, Antigone, Arendt, Bad Things I’ll Never See, Baldwin, Baudelaire, Biopower, Black Nationalism, Caregiving, Chaos (Chance, Contingency), Clarity, Common Grave, Common Place, Common Sense, Community Histories, Containment, Disclosure, Dolphins, Domestic Dysphoria, Enemy, Eternity, Experience of The The, Failure, Feminine Distances, Feminine Light, Fiddling Again, Frances, From Disaster, From the Polis to the Household, Future Anterior, Hamlet, History (or What Is Not Autonomous In Us), Homecoming, Housing Crisis, Human Capital, Human Condition, “I Could Not See To See,” Incorporating Private Interest, Know Yourself, Mallarmé, Mauvais Vitrier, Natural History, The Neo-Liberal Imagination, Not a Dialectic, Not Some Manly Toughness, Note to Myself, Nothing, Of Ethics, Outside Light, Pathos of Distance, Patiency, Pedigree, Penetration, Popular Front, Preponderance of Objects, Post-historicism, Realism, Riot, Self-Possession, State of Exception, That Women Have No History, The Difference Was What Love Was, The Little Hole, Undead, Violence, Vision, Zed.

Unfurling a few of these meditative, critical, poetic inquiries (Domestic Dysphoria, Paitency, From Disaster, Failure, Penetration, What does it mean to see Nothing), Rob laid out a complex array of large and expansive arenas for thinking anew Oppen's work; here's a small bit from Domestic Dysphoria:

...a certain gender trouble that haunts the poetry of Oppen’s middle period, and it may be inseparable from the deepest concerns moving through the work itself—concerns about nature and history, time and politics, what it means to act in the world, and what it means to be acted upon. The dysphoria registers a crisis in masculinity, if not a catastrophe in the very idea of historical agency.

He continues:

“I can see nothing at all,” Oppen writes in a Daybook, “except that one encounters the thing. And, it is impossible not to say, encounters oneself.”

“I can see nothing at all,” can almost be taken as a positive assertion, an achievement. And while this statement in itself is not an unusual one for Oppen, what follows is quite unusual: 

“And encounters in himself the passion of logic which, like the young man’s desire to sleep with the latest movie star, is unlikely to be satisfied, but can lead to crimes of violence.” (142) 

Now that’s an unusual comment, and it isn’t just a random squib that Oppen cribbed in a less than heady moment: but something he entertained and rewrote on another occasion, replacing the phrase “the latest movie star” with the proper name “Debbie Reynolds” only to continue: “Tho I am not altogether opposed to crimes of violence […] since I am not altogether pleased with the idea of standing still.” (143)

The image—of a woman, of the latest movie star, of Debbie Reynolds—displaces and haunts the thing one encounters, or longs to encounter, if only in order to know oneself. This note in the daybooks reads like the back story of “Of Being Numerous:” The whole technique of the self Oppen seems to promote—self-knowledge—would be a masculinist prerogative that finds its negative resolve in the image of a woman, the latest movie star, encountered by any young man: and because this encounter is nothing more than an occlusion of sense on a collision course with a passion of logic it can lead to a crime of violence.

As serendipity would have it, earlier in the day I had been reading Rachel Blau DuPlessis's article, "Manhood and its Poetic Projects: The Construction of Masculinity in the Counter Cultural Poetry of the U.S. 1950s" in Jacket Magazine. DuPlessis reads the work of Creeley, Olson and Ginsberg, exploring the reconstruction of masculinity performed in the poetry of these poets. Pointing out that it is masculinity only that is undone, to use a Judith Butler term, and not the binary construction of gender, DuPlessis notes that,

Further, one might see the manhood they were collectively, and differently inventing as an imperial expansiveness in the counter-cultural mode. Allegorically speaking, the center claims the goods of the periphery but ignores the periphery’s co-equality and right to power. Thus, to “gender” Edward Said’s work on culture and imperialism and construct a mechanism for feminist reception, we could say that these male poets “deconstructed and demystified” the male “center” but neglected to continue the critique by inventing “a new system of mobile relationships” to change power relationships between center and periphery that might moot those terms entirely (DuPlessis quoting Said 274-75).

Rob’s work on Oppen shares something in common with DuPlessis here.

In a portion of Domestic Dysphoria that Rob did not read Saturday night but which he has graciously sent me, he references DuPlessis's article:

In her essay "The Construction of Masculinity in the Counter-Cultural Poetry of the U.S. 1950s," Rachel Blau DuPlessis draws attention to the way "certain elements of stereotypical feminine compliance were, at least in theory, necessary to normal men in the 1950s" (Jacket 31 October 2006, 11). While specifically treating Allen Ginsberg's "orgasmic homosexuality," Robert Creeley'as "hyper-scrupulous male self-consciousness," and Charles Olson's "hyper masculine heroes" as three ways male poets found to negotiate gender, DuPlessis questions the ways these poets challenge dominant masculinities, while simultaneously preserving a regime of unequal sexual difference (37)." DuPlessis is quiet on the question of Oppen and gender, perhaps because of her particular closeness to Oppen's work. My sense is that while Oppen's "case" is implicated in these historically situated negotiations, his gender difficulty can't be matched point for point with these other poets' interventions into the social organization of sexual difference at mid-century. What complicates the specificity of Oppen's gender troublein contrast to say Olson's, Creeley's and Ginsberg's is his actual role in the historical events that conditioned the mid-century transformation of masculinity.

I look forward to seeing how Rob unfolds Oppen's difference from these other three mid-century male poets, particularly because I sense all kinds of prickly gender problematics in Oppen's work and in fact just for that very reason, among others, a couple of years ago I started work on an as yet uncompleted series of poems that enter into Oppen's poetry, writing through them. But this is all another matter.

For now there is this question: if it is historical circumstance that produces too this failure in Oppen (I don't think Rob is arguing that there is such a failure, but rather something quite to the contrary), what significance does this failure have for the undoing that Oppen does attempt? If hegemonic masculinity is critiqued, shifted, but within an unchanging binary structure, might this actually preserve (with a terrible vengeance, and thus the violent crime of ) a binary gender construction and hierarchy? In "What does it mean to see Nothing," Rob writes,

World historical agency returns here, but in the form of collective participation in unacknowledged events, or events whose form of consensual acknowledgement—the image—keeps us from acknowledging anything at all. And this may be the terrible meaning of being numerous.

There is too much in Rob's amazing and provocative talk to begin to parse. I look forward to reading more of his always capacious and generous work.  Rob closed the evening with this section:

This is how Oppen links the lyric ‘I’ and its vision to the conditions of possibility of the war crime itself. And this is “all we have made of the universe by looking at it.”

“Occurrence, a part / Of an infinite series, // The sad marvels;” but one can’t see them with clarity, because they cohabitate with every thing we see; they may even create the light by which we see these things. 

The worldly light Oppen needs to see by is so easily confounded with the bright light of encounter itself. And he’s on guard not to be among those of Rimbaud’s “Cities” in the Illuminations: “where savage gentlemen seek distraction beneath the light they made.”

One might seek simple things to see, instead, things that are uncontaminated by these occurrences, uncompromised by the light they generate, outside the world they made. One might seek things like sea, sky, hill, house, girder, street. One might seek these things while avowing the risk that one might fail, that one might not see them, or that one might succeed in seeing them, and in doing so, see nothing. One might seek these things in order to reassure oneself that one is here, too. But one can’t see the thing for the feedback, and everything feeds back. So then one seeks the stone, the mineral fact, the “nothing place,” but even these quaver in the glare. Nothing can reassure one in the way one needs to be reassured. Nothing can -- for the circumstances may not be credible. 

Still, one might be pierced by the things one can see, and touched by the things one can’t.

Here are some excerpts from Oppen's Of Being Numerous that Rob quoted and provided on a handout at the talk:

(from section 1)

There are things
We live among 'and to see them
Is to know ourselves.'

Occurrence, a part
Of an infinite series.



So spoke of the existence of things,
An unmanageable pantheon

Absolute, but they say

A city of the corporations

In dreams

And images--

And the pure joy
Of the mineral fact

Tho it is impenetrable

As the world, if it is matter
Is impenetrable.


Events: Scalapino, Hejinian & Harryman, and Halpern

E   V   E   N   T   S
Some that are coming:

Saturday, December 11th
2010 7:30 pm @ the Unitarian Center, 1187 Franklin (at Geary), San Francisco, $10

Rob Halpern will be presenting the Poetry Center's George Oppen Memorial Lecture :  "Becoming a Patient of History: George Oppen's Domesticity and the Relocation of Politics."

Rob Halpern has written several books of poetry, including Rumored Place (Krupskaya 2004), Imaginary Politics (Tap Root Editions 2008), and Disaster Suites (Palm Press 2009). Music for Porn is forthcoming (Nightboat Books, 2011). With Taylor Brady, he also co-authored the book length poem Snow Sensitive Skin (Atticus/Finch 2007), which has just been reissued by Displaced Press.

Currently, he’s co-editing, together with Kathleen Fraser, the poems of the late Frances Jaffer, and translating the early essays of Georges Perec, the second of which, “Commitment or the Crisis of Language,” recently appeared in the Review of Contemporary Fiction with an essay of his own on Perec.

An active participant in the Nonsite Collective, Rob lives in San Francisco and Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he teaches English and Creative Writing (Poetry Center).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 7:30 pm


The Wide Road: Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman

Here's what Belladonna has to say about the book and reading:
Belladonna Series is beside itself tickled to release The Wide Road, the long awaited masterpiece collaboration of two of our heroes Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman. Self-described as a “picaresque buddy being,” The Wide Road is a reveling revelatory investigation of the female body, female friendship, writing, community, activism, travel and the nature and possibility of human thinking. Please join us in celebration of this wonderful book and partnership.

Lyn Hejinian was born in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1941. Poet, essayist, and translator, she is also the author or co-author of several books of poetry, including Saga/Circus (Omnidawn Publishing, 2008), The Fatalist (2003), My Life in the Nineties (Shark, 2003), and A Border Comedy (2001). She lives in Berkeley, California.

Carla Harryman is the author of twelve books of poetry, prose plays, and essays, most recently the Essay Press publication Adorno’s Noise, two experimental novels, Gardener of Stars (2001) and The Words: after Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre (1999). Harryman teaches in the Department of English at Eastern Michigan University and is on the faculty of the Milton Avery School of the Arts Graduate Program at Bard College.
Location: Dixon Place: 161 Chrystie Street; New York, NY ; Admission: $6

You can order your copy through Belladonna here.

E  V  E  N  T  S

And one that has been:

Taylor Brady, Tom Committa and Ben Furstenberg as the three Orpheus characters

Saturday, December 4th, Small Press Traffic hosted a Memorial for Leslie Scalapino in the form of the production of the play Scalapino wrote with Kevin Killian in 1996: Stone Marmalade. Here's the info about the play provided on the Small Press Traffic website:

Stone Marmalade, directed by Kevin Killian

Visuals by Wayne Smith with a cast including Lindsey Boldt, Karla Milosevich, Brent Cunningham, Taylor Brady, Laurie Reid, Erin Morrill, Tom Comitta, Craig Goodman, Jocelyn Saidenberg, David Brazil, and others.

Stone Marmalade retells the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, as seen through the theoretical writings of Giorgio Agamben. Scalapino and Killian attended Agamben’s lectures at UC Berkeley 15 years ago, and misunderstood the philosopher’s thick Italian accent so thoroughly that they got quite a lot wrong in their script.

When the Nazis inducted prisoners into the death camps, they first took away their passports and stripped them of their former nationality. Agamben said that doing so reduced the prisoners to “mere birth-life,” but we thought he was saying “bird-life,” and so a lot of our play is bird oriented. It takes place in Hell, where Eurydice, the Queen of Hell, operates a duty-free shop (another Agamben notion about the extra-juridical status shared by duty-free shops and by the death camps) assisted by an easy-going PA, Kathy.

The women find themselves in a double triangle, both of them variously attracted ti Orpheus and to the visiting Giorgio Agamben. But the play doesn’t really begin until Kathy gets pregnant and will give birth to a bird unless Eurydice allows her to have a human baby, and also, the gates of hell part and Julia Roberts has come to make a film there, or to die there, no one is sure which. Over the past 15 years we have put on various scenes, but this will be the first time the play has ever been seen in its entirety (Small Press Traffic)

My favorite part of this play was Brent Cunningham as Agamben. He had both a Marlon Brando godfather accent, complete with a mouthful of someth'n, and a Texas twang that his character has been hiding.

Here's what Leslie wrote in the 1996 intro to this play:

In seeing  Kevin Killian's plays performed, read on-book rather than memorized, sometimes as many as twenty actors  entering and passing through again in strands of plot in a loose structure as if a skit as sequence, I've had the sense of a timing as rhythm of action--which focusing on exact relations and being 'occasional' (sometimes his plays are like dramatizing movie magazine gossip as opposed to the movies themselves) particularized to the extent of loosening/freeing both the representation of character and its occurrence. He finds a rhythm  that cuts it loose from dead weight.

We share the characteristic (although expressed by different personalities) of using overtly self-conscious play-acting (either high or low style, or both at the same time) which isn't conventional narrative.

I thought it would be interesting to collaborate by writing a play in the manner of Exquisite Corpse experiments where we would each add to the body and change it in our own scenes without having to agree (agreement, as in forced decision by the producer, would be more the method of a format Hollywood film).

We made up our own form (as doubles; my scenes also have two Eurydices); and it may be top or bottom heavy left there deliberately, have no compensation for our differences--and therefore, it is hoped might have the possibility in each of our scenes of being able to bring in the existing anarchy, ridiculous by being both bathetic and lovely at the same time. (Scalapino. no page #s but page 2 of intro).


Encyclopedia Project at Small Press Traffic

Encyclopedia Project Reading

Friday November 19th, Small Press Traffic hosted a reading for the newly published second volume of the Encyclopedia Project, edited by Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, and Kate Schatz.

About the second volume and the project the editors write, “Encyclopedia Vol. 2 F-K is the second volume of the Encyclopedia Project. The 209 entries in Vol. 2, submitted by 152 contributors, reinvigorate the encyclopedia form with short fiction, critical essays, interviews, fairy tales, drawings, photographs, charts, lists, plays, and more. Cross-references create conversations among entries throughout this volume, as well as its predecessor, Vol. 1 A-E.”

The work presented Friday night was delightfully diverse, from graphic forms (Jaime Cortez’s Sexile), film (Kirthi Nath), photographs (Dorothea Lange photos appearing in Chuleenan Svetvilas and Tammy Rae Carland’s entries), art work (Amy Trachtenberg), and a variety of prose. The night’s readers and the names of their entries included:

Home—Gloria Frym

Kitchen—Tyler Carter

Job—Amanda Davidson

Grammar—Ali Liebegott

Flow—Mary Burger

Garble—Robert Gluck and Jocelyn Saidenberg

Form—artwork by Amy Trachtenberg

Favorite—Sailor Holladay

Kiss—Brian Teare

Graphic Novel—Jaime Cortez

Holy—Bronwen Tate

Jiminy Cricket—Sarah Fran Wisby

Gravity—Claire Light

Flying—Kirthi Nath

Internment—Chuleenan Svetvilas

Icon—Tammy Rae Carland

Horoscope—Christian Nagler

Here I’m including Brian Teare’s entry and two that were not read Friday night but which I find thrilling.


On Prose

One year of my life seems to me now entirely the time before a lover arrived. After I’d shower I’d read prose—how sharp the syntax then, how easily ideas seemed to have been composed—before the phone would ring and the door admit the shiny dimes of his button fly, the economy of narrative.

Fragments of small talk: slowly they’d gather their modest eros before the mattress bowed under the weight of him, taking off his shoes. They’re still on my shelves, the books I didn’t finish, marked with scraps of paper at page 40 or 15, whatever interval of understanding I had to myself before what we said was said.

As lavender is most fragrant when crushed, a poem is broken language, lines characteristically riddled with silences. Inevitably, he’d talk in the nervous way a page of prose has of being voluble, over-full. I remember waiting for him to b white space, the place where the line breaks to let in what isn’t finished, what might never finish making sense.

“Kiss” seems an inadequate word for what we did. It didn’t begin with the crack of teeth, didn’t skip the elicit with a middle too short to arouse, and the hiss at its end is a mean finale. Where is the long vowel that opened our mouths with ah at their centers, where is the word that means beginning felt it might last as long as aria, a soprano’s melisma at an opera’s climax? How thick to sink into thorough O of his throat, its texture so like what lies at the poem’s margin.

It is not solely story and it is not only a song, and if to fuck is to cross genres, getting from A to B is the least of it.

There is rhythm in a list: alliteration, armpits, ass, assonance, aureole, belly, blowjob, character, climax, cock, cockring, condom, conflict, consonance, cum, deep-throat, denouement, detail, dialogue, earlobe, flirtation, foreplay, fucking, glans, grammar, hair, hand-job, hip, image, jockstrap, kiss, knee, licking, line, line-break, lip, love, lube, metaphor, meter, moan, mouth, muscle, nape, narrative, nipple, penetration, plot, pubes, rhyme, rim-job, role-play, scene, sentence, setting, simile, spit, stanza, sucking, summary, suspense, sweat, syntax, tendon, tenor, tongue, vehicle.

There is rhythm in a list, and if the bed rocked and listed under the abecedarian of us, it was with a motion that meant we weren’t going anywhere a sentence could follow; as with the space between numbers that’s infinitely divisible, and that means, upon setting out, we should never arrive anywhere, my thighs parted whitely and he entered me and minutes fissioned, seconds split each from each, time the sunder of under the weight of another.

Sex was the virtuoso whose muscle memory leaves him free to think about music, not technique—it is hard to say where our minds went, together or alone, toward or away from each other, but we were within narrative and paying no mind to it, and wasn’t there pleasure in being prodigals with the instrument? Wasn’t some song wrung from our meeting, weren’t we lave and lavish, weren’t we push, pelvis, dental and labial, gum and tooth and tongue? How sacrum we were, it seems now, how integument.

To be lovers but not in love was the clock’s hands touching the numbers one by one, and if pornography is the gratuity of narrative, then our fucking was sub rosa, a scent set to flower beneath our skins and heat enough to taste it.

On occasion, mistaking momentarily the exactitude of his attention, his skill, for affection, and wanting to—so local and warm, his mouth on the small of my back before it began to round and cleave and lead him downward—I would need stifle a small sorrow that we were ever nothing more than lovers, how there was a refusal of attachment in him the way a sentence cannot be endlessly revised, extended clause by clause, its pleasure in delay, a dallying before the shock of its ending full-stop.

It is not regret to write this; it is a sentiment that can’t talk with its mouth full of cock.

If there were prose, there would be a titillation of expletives and the inevitable money-shots in gluts slick as adjectives; there would be the relaxed gratitude following ejaculation and the scent of salt and iron, the rough tongue of a towel after.

If this were prose, there would the humor of his hair at odds with order and name-brand clothing I helped him into, his shoes and the kneeling required to tie them; his belt would buckle around how eventually the sidewalk emptied onto a busy street where his little car leaked teaspoons of oil.

If this were prose, it would attempt a semblance of speech, little iambs of Goodbye he said I said he said.

If this were prose, the door would close and restore my silence. Our sweat would dry on my skin, and it would take with it my name in an exit so complete, each time I write I wait for it to begin.

--Brian Teare


They took to the road and immediately began calling one anther names. The road brings out the worst in us, they admitted. Retro Coco, loving what she called kitsch, enthralled by gas stations and dime stores, imagined herself very distantly. Kitsch for her was anything at all, especially nature. She invested the kitsch of the Colorado Rockies with a special, ‘high kitsch’ aura. The striations and watermarks, just so many waved lines of neo-modernist textile. Percy, herbal and not especially taken with Coco’s musings—the sky is a tacky curtain—pointed to people rappelling and said, I’d like to try that. To which Coco said, ha ha, socks with sandals. On their walks, between campgrounds and hours of driving, Coco bent over occasionally to stretch and Percy sat down. Coco said—green grass is outlandish, and mountains are brash-gas masks, she went on, and ducks and decoys, jellies, snares, Nancy Drew, and malt liquor, flip flops, kung fu, waterbeds, daisies, dolls, and anything fur, fish tanks, crinolines and garters, white clogs, post cards and aprons, cast iron, tree houses, hula hoops, babies, wigs and trumpets, lawn ornaments, airplanes, bathrobes and chewing gum, but most of all, most of all, planet earth—to which Percy did not respond. Classification was a thing that wearied her. She touched a bit of earth as if to reassure it.

--Miranda Mellis


From Incidents in the Life of Aunt Jemima: The Narrative of a Modern-Day Black Woman, Written by Herself.

Sometime in the new millennium, a large Black woman got her first full-time academic job. The Chair of the department and the Dean of the college did not mention that the tenure tack came with a nineteenth century headscarf.

Between 1933, when she was hired, and 1951, when she died, Anna Robinson portrayed Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats. She was described as a “large, gregarious woman.” Over the years various other women portrayed the role.

Hers was the smallest office on the entire floor—but it did have a window, and she was the most junior faculty member, so she didn’t mind. What she did mind was the layers of thick, siltish dust on every surface, so she asked when the office would be cleaned, thinking it was a routine request. At first the secretaries told her “soon,” but a few weeks and a few requests later, they directed her to talk to the department chair. The young professor had begun to publicly joke and privately worry that her office wasn’t going to be cleaned at all. Sarah, a white woman who had been hired the year before, assured the black woman that that would not happen. “After all,” Sarah said, “my office is cleaned regularly without me even asking!”

In 1889 the Aunt Jemima “ready” pancake mix was first marketed; in 1890 the Aunt Jemima character was first marketed. The character was not based on a real person, but on another fictional character—one created by black-face performers.

In all, five verbal requests and two emails later, she received the following message from the Chair:

At this University the Provost likes to say that we do windows. Unfortunately, in your case, this is literal. If you want your office cleaned, you will have to do it yourself.

So, the young professor came to the university one morning dressed in overalls, with a bandana tied around her head, a bucket and a bottle of Pine Sol in one hand, and a pair of yellow gloves in the other. She made sure everyone in the office saw her that day and knew why she was there. None of them commented, or seemed surprised or disturbed. Then she cleaned her office—but she didn’t do the windows. This is how, with ire, but without irony, a modern Aunt Jemima was created.

Even after this incident, Aunt Jemima resisted her new role. She ignored other professors’ taunts—for instance, when she wore suits, her colleagues, some of whom wore t-shirts and jeans (not the unfashionable kind) to teach, accused Aunt Jemima of trying to make them look bad. They also questioned why she so often wore bright colors. Then classes started.

In 1989 the product logos was “updated” by removing Aunt Jemima’s headscarf and portraying her with straightened hair and in pearls and a lace collar.

If you like teaching, as Aunt Jemima did, the students are the best part of the job. Of course, if you are a woman of color professor, then your job includes hours of informal and unrecognized student advising in addition to teaching, research, and university committee work. Having been mentored quite a bit herself, Aunt Jemima didn’t mind the extra work. By the second semester, word had gotten out that she was tough, but fair, and that she was also pretty friendly.

That was when a group of Moslem students came to her for help. A notoriously racist and xenophobic professor was marking down the grades of South Asian students and Moslem women who covered their hair. Aunt Jemima realized that, as an assistant professor, she had very little power in the situation. She suggested the students complain as a group to the administration, but they were afraid of reprisals. So she said she would ask a senior colleague for suggestions. Aunt Jemima approached a full professor know for his progressive politics and presented the situation as though it were hypothetical. The colleague interrupted her before she’d finished her second sentence. “Him?” the colleague shrugged. “Everyone knows he’s like that. But he’s old—just wait for him to retire.” “And what about the students?” Aunt Jemima asked. The colleague shrugged and repeated, “Just wait for him to retire.” Aunt Jemima again suggested to the students that they complain en masse to the Chair, the Dean, or another administrator. They said they would think about it, but they didn’t trust those other professors.

Black faculty must perform various roles within the academy that are not necessarily requested of their white colleagues. Besides being scholars, Black faculty are expected to [perform ‘emotional labor’ and ] act as activists…

Around this time, Aunt Jemima’s colleagues began to confuse her with another assistant professor, Eva. Eva, a Latina, was shorter than Aunt Jemima and had white skin (Aunt Jemima’s was very dark). Aunt Jemima didn’t mention the situation to Eva, but when Eva said people were “confusing” her with Aunt Jemima as well, they joked that it was because they were the best-dressed people in the department. They did not discuss the other two traits they had in common, that neither of them was white and that both had very long, impressive resumes.

Aunt Jemima tried to focus on the positive—and on her work. The requirements for tenure were unclear and inconsistent, but Aunt Jemima figured she’d be safe with a book. Still, with more than 70 students each semester, the informal advising, and the committee work, she wasn’t getting much writing done. The Chair told her there was zero support for junior faculty and there was “no such thing” as course release (which Aunt Jemima later found out to be untrue). Taking pity on the crestfallen Aunt Jemima, the Chair told her that if she got an outside fellowship to work on her research, the school would be “happy” to let her take it.

So Aunt Jemima got a fellowship.

On the advice of colleagues at other institutions, she asked the Dean if the university would make up the difference between the fellowship’s stipend and her regular salary. His response was that he “didn’t see why” they should compensate her at all when she wouldn’t be on campus. He added that her healthcare and other benefits would also be cancelled for the year. So, Aunt Jemima took a $15,000 pay cut (not including the missing benefits).

While she was away, she worked on her book manuscript and secured several shorter publications. After all, she didn’t want people to think she wasted her time off. Coming back to the university the next fall, Aunt Jemima decided she was going to start as if from the beginning. She would go back with (almost) all of the excitement and optimism she had when she first got the job. She smiled at and found complements for everyone—this one’s skirt, that one’s haircut, another’s tidy desk. Her colleagues, in return, welcomed her with comments such as “Do you remember where your office is?” and “No one really thought you were coming back.” Aunt Jemima swallowed and smiled, thinking that a certain amount of hating was to be expected. She would win them over by smothering them with kindness and burying herself in work.

An Aunt Jemima is someone who can emotionally suckle multiple persons at once while enduring infinite abuse, all with no help and a large smile. Aunt Jemima does not complain, does not tend to her own needs (she does not realize she has her “own” needs), has no sexuality, does not get tired, and does not get sick. Aunt Jemima does not die; she is merely replaced by a similar looking and performing model, perhaps with a different hairstyle or clothing.

Aunt Jemima joined four departmental committees and one university committee. She also spent much of that semester preparing her annual review to the tabbed, highlighted, color-coordinated specifics laid out by the Dean. Before she submitted the binder, she took it to her official university mentor. Instead of looking through all the materials, he focused on her CV, asking Aunt Jemima how he could get his work published in the same journals.

A couple of weeks later, after the department’s promotion committee had met, the mentor summoned Aunt Jemima to his office again. “This,” he gestured to the three-inch binder filled with everything she’d done or published since coming to the university, “is too much. It will look suspicious. You need to take some of this stuff out.” Aunt Jemima thanked him for his mentoring and made an appointment with the Chair, who confirmed that Aunt Jemima should remove some of her work from the file. She asked if every professor was receiving the same instructions. The Chair sighed. “Well, you know,_________ is at the same level as you, but he doesn’t have as many publications. It just won’t make him look good.” She looked up and caught Aunt Jemima’s Ican’tbelieveyou’reactuallysaying this expression and sighed again. “But I did them, I wrote them all,” Aunt Jemima protested. “Look, you just don’t need these publications” the Chair patiently explained. “And you know____is a single father…” she trailed off.

A real-live former slave, Nancy Green, signed a lifetime contract to become a living trademark as the first “Aunt Jemima” spokesperson.

Aunt Jemima realized she had to leave. She had a feeling some white man’s—any white man’s promotion and career would always be more important than hers. When she told the story to senior colleagues at other institutions, more than one said she should sue. But Aunt Jemima didn’t want to sue. She just wanted another job.

Six months later she had more than one offer—all paying more than and requiring less teaching than her current position. Still wanting to be a good citizen, Aunt Jemima asked for an exit interview with the Chair. That last meeting was much like the others. The Chair repeatedly interrupted the junior professor and insisted she had “misheard” the instructions regarding the promotion review. (Though she did not deny that Aunt Jemima had been told to remove materials from her file, nor that different professors received different instructions.) The Chair ended the meeting by adding how easy it is for women of color to get jobs these days.

Years before Aunt Jemima had swallowed her tongue, so she kept her sharp answers to herself.

Until now.

--Aunt Jemima (the bio note says, “Aunt Jemima is a diasporic writer, artist, and theoryhead, who blogs off the plantation at jujustring.blogspot.com)


Hiromi Itō's Killing Kanoko

For reasons too unworthy to mention, earlier this fall I missed Hiromi Itō ’s reading which was jointly sponsored by Mills College and Small Press Traffic. However, I have just begun to read her book Killing Kanoko, translated by Jeffrey Angles, published by Action Books, Notre Dame, Indiana, 2009. In his Introduction, Angles tells us that Itō was born in Tokyo in 1955 and she "came to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s thanks to a series of dramatic collections of poetry that completely transformed the ways people were writing in Japan. In a recent collection of contemporary poetry, the poet Kido Shuri described Ito’s contributions to the world of poetry in the following way:

The appearance of Ito Hiromi, a figure that one might best call a ‘shamaness of poetry’ (shi no miko), was an enormous event in ‘post-war poetry.’ Her physiological sensitivity and writing style, which cannot be captured within any existing framework, became the igniting force behind the subsequent flourishing of ‘women’s poetry’ (josei shi), just as Hagiwara Sakutarō had revolutionized modern poetry with his morbid sensitivity and colloquial style."


Angles continues: "As Itō’s reputation as a ‘woman poet’ grew, she took increasing exception to her position within the literary world, believing that by subsuming her writing under the category of woman’s poetry, the publishing industry was simply lumping her in with a broad array of female writers and obscuring the differences among them. Instead, she insisted on being recognized as a poet without the delimiting adjective ‘woman’ that might pigeonhole her work.

At the same time, however, her writing gravitated increasingly to issues of the feminine body, sexuality, and motherhood..…In the late 1980s Itō became eager to leave her husband and change her surroundings, so she set her sights on America…Through her refusal to give in to the restrictions that twentieth-century Japanese institutions of poetry placed on what could be considered ‘poetic,’ Itō has consistently challenged dominant concepts of poeticity and, in the process, pointed out the inadequacy of more mainstream poetic styles to embody contemporary experience ” (Angles viii-xi).

Itō came to the States permanently in 1991 and now lives in Encinitas with her partner Harold Cohen. In 2006 her long narrative poem Wild Grass on a Riverbank (Kawara arekusa, 2005), won the Takami Jus Prize, “awarded each year to an outstanding and innovative collection of poetry. In September 2007, her “long and fantastic narrative,” The Thorn-Puller (Toge-nuke, 2007), “won the fifteenth Hagiwara Sakutarō Prize, given each year to an innovative work of literature by the city of Maebashi (Angles).”


Itō's work is mesmerizing and disturbing. She pushes at the boundaries of what can be written. From what I can tell so far, Itō seems to be working in flat registers. She makes of anaphora a sandpaper abrasion, deploying lists, phrases, clauses as machines that expose a banal and dull violence. She plays with substitution, cutting up and replacing words, body parts, myth, relation. Language acquisition, particularly language acquired outside of daily immersion, becomes a matter of drills, memorizations, conjugations, substitutions. Its artificiality and staged circumstances, nevertheless reveal disturbances, troubling ideologies. Somehow, in the midst of this quiet and methodical play of substitutions, Itō's writing manages to sneak up on the reader, to surprise. The work is not beautiful, or linguistically dazzling (at least as revealed by this translation),  but rather it stuns differently, in some way that escapes easy identification, but enthralls nevertheless.

Here are two poems from Killing Kanoko:

The Maltreatment of Meaning

Can you speak Japanese?
No, I cannot speak
Yes, I can speak
Yes, I can speak but cannot read
Yes, I can speak and read but cannot write
Yes, I can speak and write but cannot understand
I was a good child
You were a good child
We were good children
That is good
I was a bad child
You were a bad child
We were bad children
That is bad
To learn a language you must replace and repeat
I was an ugly child
We were ugly children
That is ugly
I am bored
You are bored
We are bored
That is boring
I am hateful
We are hateful
That is hatred
I will eat
You will eat
We will eat
That is a good appetite
I won’t eat
You wont’ eat
We won’t eat
That is a bad appetite
I will make meaning
You will make meaning
We will make meaning
That is conveying language
I will use Japanese
You will use Japanese
We will use Japanese
That is Japanese
I want to rip off meaning
You want to rip off meaning
We want to rip off meaning
That is the desire to rip off meaning
I want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
You want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
We want to show contempt for language as nothing more than raw material
That is, language is nothing more than raw material
I will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
You will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
We will replace words mechanically and make sentences impossible in real life
That is replacing words mechanically and making sentences impossible in real life
Rip off meaning
Sound remains
Even so we search for meaning. The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger one sticks out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger I stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger you stick out
The primitive reflex of a newborn sucking a finger that sticks out
As for me, meaning
As for you, meaning
As for us, meaning
Is meaning, that is
Do not communicate
As for me, do not communicate
As for you, do not communicate
As for us, do not communicate
Do not do that, that is communication
Meaning ripped apart and covered in blood is surely miserable, that is happiness
I am happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
We are happy meaning covered in blood is miserable
The blood-covered meaning of that is blood-covered misery, that is happiness (50-52).


As my eyes followed the footprints spotting the ground
I realized a rabbit had been killed
I learned the ones going straight ahead were the fox’s
The ones going hop, two prints, hop, two prints were the rabbit’s
“Hop, two prints” and “straight ahead” intermingled
Then became just “straight ahead”
There was no trace of blood
“Hop, two prints” did not run amok
I am barefoot
I took off shoes then took off my socks
I’ve laid myself completely bare
You see that
When I took off my shoes and socks
There was fur growing between my toes
Blood was oozing from the space between them
You see that
I am writing
You see that
I want to show it to you
You are also writing
I see that
I think to myself
A man who writes so beautifully
What a beautiful
Man, men, women
You finish writing and put it away
You don’t seem to want to show me
You put on your shoes
And set off across the snowy field
I remain there
If I am “hop, two prints” in the snowy field
My fate is to be caught by “straight ahead”
Surely that will happen in morning
When it grows light here (78-79).


Travelling with Leslie Scalapino: Flow--(Winged Crocodile) / The Trains

In Celebration of the late Leslie Scalapino:  Flow--(Winged Crocodile) / The Trains

On November 16, 2010 The Belladonna Collaborative will present for the first time in its entirety Flow--(Winged Crocodile) /The Trains. Scalapino's play travels between the left and right sides of the brain, with appearances by a reincarnated Patty Hearst in the 1974 SLA bank heist and a green-winged creature that is part crocodile, part Michelin man and part charging rhino. Scalapino (1944-2010) was the author of thirty books of poetry, poem-plays, essays, and fiction.

Tuesday, November 16 @ Dixon Place
161A Chrystie St.
New York, NY 10002
7:30 pm $6
Visit Belladonna's web site here to buy tickets in advance.

Scalapino's play is directed by Fiona Templeton, with Katie Brown, Stephanie Silver and Julie Troost. Dance choreographed and performed by Molissa Fenley. Music by Joan Jeanrenaud. Costumes by Jill St Coeur. Projected drawings b Eve Biddle. Video selected by Stephanie Silver and edited by John Jesurun.

About Leslie and her work, Lyn Hejinian recently wrote:

Leslie's work was a manifestation of what she termed "continual conceptual rebellion." "Continual conceptual rebellion" is a means of outrunning the forces that would re-form (conventionalize) one. If you stay in one place too long you'll be taken over—either by your own fixating ideas or by those of others. To survive one must always be outrunning what she called "the destruction of the world." This is a reason that travel is such an important motif in Scalapino's work.

It may also be what drew her so frequently to collaborations, especially with artists working in other media. These included visual artists Kiki Smith, Petah Coyne, and Marina Adams; musicians Larry Ochs and, most recently, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud; dancers Brenda Way, of the San Francisco-based Oberlin Dance Collective, and June Wattanabe; and with other writers, including Norman Fischer and myself.

Read more of what Lyn has to say here.

The Electronic Poetry Center's page on Scalapino is here.
The Scalapino obituary page is here.


"The Shakers" a play by Kevin Killian and Wayne Smith at Small Press Traffic

The Shakers Backstage--photo courtesy of Kevin Killian
Once again Kevin Killian and Wayne Smith have given the Bay Area the gift of an evening of communal pleasure. It is not the 19th Century, but the 21st, and yet, Killian and Smith's play (set in the 19th century) reminds me of the 19th century's delight in tableaux vivants, but with a difference. The tableau vivant--"the living picture, the tableau historique, the pose plastique, the pregnant moment, the costumed tableau and film still"--according to the University of Chicago's Theories of Media Keyword Glossary, has its origins in "medieval liturgical dramas." The first tableau vivant was staged in 1760 when "Carlo Bertenazzi represented Grueze's painting, "The Village Betrothal in Les Noces d'Arlequin" at Versailles. The tableaux vivants were part entertainment and part educational and informational as they represented paintings and important moments in history and literature. They were "performed variously as a parlour game, a carnival attraction, pageant, pedagogical tool or propaganda image, [and] the history of the tableau vivant is most commonly located in popular entertainments and is usually found within the context of informal social gatherings" (The New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant). I suspected that these entertainments might have also provided yet another way of enjoying the bodies of women, particularly if the painting being re-produced in the tableau was one with scantily clad figures. The New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant's history confirms this:

Originally a parlor game for the wealthy, tableau vivant gained wide popularity in the 19th century only to fade away with the coming of radio and moving pictures. There are numerous examples of tableau vivant in European culture ranging from the refined to the crude. In late 19th century London, for example, the still pose of the tableau cleverly by-passed laws on public nudity making it possible for clubs, like The Windmill, to put naked ladies on display for the ostensible purpose of edifying the (male) public by recreating classical sculptures!

In this particular play there weren't any nude bodies, though Walt Whitman found romance by the banks of the river with a Civil War deserter. Killian and Smith's The Shakers reminds me of these tableaux vivants not because they are produced by people with money and leisure, mostly quite the opposite, but because they are collective entertainments that enlist members of the community who are not professional actors. The play is as much entertainment for those collaborating as it is for those in the audience. And yes, tableaux vivants, were silent, visual entertainments, and poets theater is a garrulous, and usually minimally costumed and staged theater, but they seem to bring a form of poetry (rather than paintings and art history), to a broad audience; they have a carnavalesque atmosphere and provide a social and local space for poetry to perform and engage critique, history, pleasure.

Last night, The Shakers playfully intermixed the present (in its self-reflexive commentary on life and literature of the period) with 19th century Massachusetts. Set near Amherst, the play included appearances by the parents of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman (who had come to the Shaker village to take advantage of the Shakers' industrious workers who would produce his "Whitman Sampler" chocolates), and soldiers who had fought in the recent Civil War. Trader Joe, dressed in surfer/Hawaiian shirt and jeans, showed up with his traveling wagon with good deals on Merlot, Swiss cheese, and other fare. There were lines from Whitman's poems, including references to "I sing the body electric," and his poem about the recently assassinated President Lincoln:

WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Selections from a number of Emily Dickinson's poems including all of "My Life had stood a Loaded Gun."

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

And there were quips about Dickinson's maid and Aife Murray's recent book on Dickinson, Maid as Muse. While the sets were minimal in this play, it made use of excellent costumes (including a living costumed fire sculpture by Matthew Gordon who was assisted by Mik Gaspay) and sound--both songs sung back- and on-stage by the players, and the recorded voice of Anne McGuire and various other sounds--barnyard animals, birds, etc.

The play takes us on a romp through a Shaker village with its competitive innovators--men and women who forgo sexuality and channel/sublimate all that energy into industrious inventions from pegs for hanging things, to brooms and chairs. The Shakers trade with Apple Betty, a 108 year old forest woman who has an 18 year old German son in lederhosen and a newborn at the end of the play. Apple Betty (played by the always amazing Clifford Hengst), in stark contrast to the Shakers' love of cleanliness, enjoys "shuffling through her own Parthenon of dust." And then there is Polly, a young Shaker with amnesia who tires of all the toiling and wants to gaze at the dots in the sky and make lines between them, naming the constellations. She cites Tristan and Isolde and fancies many/any of the men who cross her path. Charles, the community's leader, is discovered  to have fathered one of the Shaker boys while at a Shaker Conference some 20 years+ ago.  The play closed with all players on stage singing "Will the Circle be Unbroken."   Of course, there's more, all that I can't begin to capture. I left feeling tired but high.

Here's the casting info for The Shakers:

Apple Betty, old woman of the woods Clifford Hengst  (Fab! Over the top.)

“Polly,” a young Shaker with amnesia................ Karla Milosevich (Karla's speaking voice is amazing. I could listen to her all day. Twangy lilt.)

Peg, a young Shaker, inventor of the peg...... Jocelyn Saidenberg  (Poor Peg. She loved Luke, but hadn't invented anything since "the peg.")

Ludwig, strange son of Apple Betty Craig Goodman  (Really, he only wanted to kiss those clean Shaker girls)

Sister Ray, eldress to all female Shakers...... Laurie Reid  (Loves her man no matter what)

Elder Charles, her male counterpart............ Rex Ray        (Snaky)

Luke, a young Shaker, Civil War veteran.... Taylor Brady  (So innocent in that blond wig!)

Frank, a young Shaker.. Colter Jacobsen  (Smart)

Nancy, a young Shaker............... Yedda Morrison  (Breathy)

Uriah Lee, a British Shaker, descendant of Mother Ann Lee David Brazil  (Great accent; good electric chair)

Amos, a veteran of the American Civil War.......... Scott Hewicker  (He falls for Walt)

Joe, the trader.... Glen Helfand  (a practical man)

Walt Whitman, poet, nurse, gadabout.... Kevin Killian    (Underplayed suavely)

Belle Adore, worldly woman of Amherst... Lindsey Boldt  (The shoes, the dress, the bar girl posture!)

Edward Dickinson, Congressman with a missing daughter Darin Klein

Mrs. Dickinson, his wife....... Tanya Hollis   (Stunning in black)
Anne McGuire singing on recorded tracks -- that unearthly voice you heard, manipulated by Wayne Smith who selected all the music (and wrote some). (Awesome)

The "fire" sculpture was the product of the artist Matthew Gordon, who was assisted by Mik Gaspay as they crawled all over the stage to create the illusion of the village on fire. (They even crackled)

For more, read Dodie Bellamy's blog entry on the play and lots else!


Sarah Rosenthal's A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area

October 9th, Saturday night, Small Press Traffic will host Sarah Rosenthal and some of the local writers Rosenthal interviewed for her hefty (342+ pages) 2010 Dalkey Archive Press book. The collection includes interviews with twelve Bay Area writers:

Kathleen Fraser
Robert Glück
Barbara Guest
Brenda Hillman
Nathaniel Mackey
Michael Palmer
Stephen Ratcliffe
Elizabeth Robinson
Camille Roy
Leslie Scalapino
Juliana Spahr
Truong Tran

Some of thes authors, such as Palmer, Ratcliffe, Glück, and Fraser are longstanding Bay Area residents; others, such as Spahr, are more recent inhabitants. However, each has been involved in long-term friendships and aesthetic conversations with writers here and elsewhere, near and far. The dozen includes seven women and five men; two writers of color, some who are queer, and two writers who have since died.

Rosenthal begins her book with an introduction that lays out a sketch of the Bay Area’s lengthy history of vanguardism. She then explains the genesis of this collection of interviews:
I took up this project after four and half years of writing a monthly, online column that featured more than fifty Bay Area poets. Increasingly frustrated by the format, which required me to boil down lengthy interviews and a great deal of study into 1,000-word articles, I sought a project that would better communicate my enthusiasm for much of the writing I was presenting. Eventually I landed on the idea of a book of twelve interviews—twelve in part because in an utterly naïve way I imagined that the project would take me a year (an interview per month!)—but twelve, too, because I felt that number would allow me to include a range of poetics within the Bay Area experimental community. Nine years later, as I bring this project to completion, I find myself unable even to begin to fathom the gifts it has given me. Amidst the highway-racing, channel-surfing, let’s-do-lunch, skim-the-anthology tenor of these times, I have had the chance to slow down and dwell in the rich terrain of a handful of poets’ work. I have had the chance, by visiting other artists’ worlds, to view my own poetics with fresh perspective. And I have had the chance to enact some of my own ideals about the importance of deep attention. We all hunger to be read, to be heard, to be answered. We all bear urgent news. Let’s speak. And let’s listen.
As is the case in any interview, these pieces are as much about Rosenthal's interests as they are about each individual writer's. I haven’t made my way through all of these interviews, but I know I will return to this collection. Here are some moments, picked pretty much randomly, but which also speak to and across one another.

from Kathleen Fraser "Placing Silence":

Fraser:...One of the means I developed to get away from the internalized values of "good" English prosody still making its unconscious demands on my ear was to go back and forth between writing poetry with line breaks and writing long sentences and paragraphs to stretch out the sound so it wouldn't be so tightly wound and musically compressed by the old ear habits. In the late eighties and early nineties, after exploring a number of visual and sound devices in the long sequence poems published in when new time folds up, I started understanding that in fact I really loved highly compressed musical textures but I needed to find my own peculiar 'condensations'--to use a Niedecker reference. Instead of pushing them away as threat, I knew that I would work to foreground that pleasure (68).

From the interview with Truong Tran, “I Became the Other”:

Rosenthal: dust and conscience is framed by the poet-speaker’s relationship with the reader. The first poem, which starts “if only I were a dissident poet,” talks about the poet’s role and asks how the poems are going to be met by readers. One reading is that the poem describes a kind of survivor’s guilt—a questioning of whether one’s poetry can be taken seriously if one hasn’t had the horrific experiences of, say, a prisoner of conscience. Another reading is that the poem is challenging the reader to shed any expectations about what the text will serve up.

Tran: For me, it’s the latter. I still encounter the expectation, thirty years into my existence in this country, that I’ll deliver on the boat story. As a writer of color and also a gay writer, I’m not supposed to have abstract thoughts. I’m supposed to tell the story and convey the experience. In that poem I wanted to say, there are going to be some abstract thoughts here—but they won’t be floating around; they’re grounded. I believe we end up writing what we know—but I also believe that as writers, we shouldn’t be limited by what we know. There’s a world of possibility in what we don’t know, and it’s our right to explore that (324-325).

Camille Roy from “Experience is a Demanding Mistress”:

Roy: Experience is like a demanding mistress; it demands that people continually invent new aesthetic strategies just in order to represent it…..I see drama as a concentration of the theatricality and performativity of daily life. We are always making up drama; social life is drama. Performativity and social life tend to be associated with people who are closer to the street, for one reason or another. And performative theatrical language is often street language. Innovations in American slang don’t come from the educated middle class.

Most of the live shows I had gone to before writing Bye Bye Brunhilde were either drag shows or strip shows. My whole sense of theatrics and performativity came from the clubs and the sex industry. So it was sort of a private joke that I ended up writing this experimental play. While the language is experimental, the energy of the work really reflects those origins (257-270).

From Michael Palmer “The Recovery of Language”:

Palmer: So modernist poetry, along with the other arts, was really helpful to me. Also, when I was still young I met the poets of the outside, so to speak, in all their variety, and realized that I was not alone in my interests. I ‘met’ Stan Brakhage through Robert Creeley at the age of twenty. I ‘met’ Louis Zukofsky through Bob as well, though as Clark Coolidge recently reminded me, I’d already read a bit of his work before. So there were these worlds opening up.

And of course I was out here at a very fruitful moment in poetics. When I first arrived, in ’68 or ’69, there was a bit of a lull. The Spicer generation had scattered. The San Francisco Renaissance was no longer in its moment, although some of its poets were doing great work. Then suddenly in the early seventies, as for instance Lyn Hejinian, Bob Perelman, Johanna Drucker, and many others began to gather here, as well as those in opposition to what they saw as the Language movement, there was a lot of very interesting contention about theory, about performativity, about all of these questions, which was extremely useful (184-185).

From Nathaniel Mackey “The Atmosphere is Alive”:

Mackey: It’s one of the dimensions of the way I’ve been working with the pronoun ‘we’ in recent years. That ‘we’ runs the gamut from the he/she couple to larger groupings—you mentioned ‘nation’—that the title Splay Anthem evokes. One of the things that makes the anthem ‘splay’—an awkward anthem, a disturbed anthem—is the fact that one is more than one mind in this desire to be a part of a ‘we,’ whether it’s a couple, a nation, or some other collectivity. This ambivalence splays the anthem, the unifying song of whatever the collective is. The collectivity that these poems seem to be about or to chronicle in some way, the lost tribe that sometimes goes by the name of the Andoumboulou, seems to be some renegade group whose relationship to established collectivities is a fugitive one (156).

From Robert Glück’s “A Community Writing Itself”:

Rosenthal: I’d like to thread this back to the quote I read, ‘A dishonest picture is a traitor, an enemy of the common good.’ Just to be provocative, this sounds like some oppressive and limiting political doctrine. Same with ‘I follow the dictates of my plot, but not beyond by reader’s credence.’ You have a huge sense of responsibility toward this common good or this reader, and I want to know what that stems from.

Glück: I was being provocative, waving a word like ‘dishonest’ in the face of postmodernism. I mean that we should discover in our writing the prevailing conditions. We almost never—perhaps never—experience the world except through the scrim of representations that already exist, that we have unknowingly agreed to. The politics of representation is to bring that agreement to light, or revise that agreement toward a more exact or inclusive experience of the world. So, rejecting the vile mainstream versions of who we were, but also rejecting those sugarcoated versions delivered to ourselves by ourselves. I would say that an honest fiction is one that is mindful of its own power relations. When you enter a reader’s psychic life, that’s power, and you either own that or you don’t. You can figure out how you want to enter the reader’s psychic life; you can make those dynamics apparent; you can manipulate them in order to give the reader choices; you can even try to bring the reader into the process of constructing the meanings that are being generated. You can top the willing reader, producing spasms of genre pleasure. But you can’t will away power. I had the idea that there is such a thing as a common good in the first place. Who knows? Maybe it comes from the Orthodox Jewish tribe I grew up in. First I embraced all these identities with relief. Now they seem to pass by me and I feel even more relief (79-80).

From Juliana Spahr “How Does the Work Get Used”:

Spahr: ….I find those two perspectives you mentioned—the very wide focus and the very small, tight focus—psychologically comforting. It’s part of how the brain works. To be honest, I began playing with moving between these two perspectives because perspectival manipulation is one of the ways that trance states are induced. ‘Poem Written after September 11, 2001’ in this connection of everyone with lungs was deliberately written so as to mimic the structure of trance induction. I was taking a course in Ericksonian hypnosis at the time and I was interested in how much overlap there is between poetic devices and trance induction devices, how both are partial to metaphor and analogy. And then New York City was so unusually complicated after September 11. New York, like all places, has its own particular forms of myopia. The myopia got even more intense after September 11. That event was so large that it was hard to think about other places all that much. My thought was to write a poem that used the structure of a trance induction to suggest to its hearers, its readers, ways to take other places into themselves (300-201).