Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“I Had Every Intention”—New Poetry by Michael Gottlieb

Recently I heard Michael Gottlieb read the title poem from his new volume of poetry, I Had Every Intention, at the Faux Press party at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I’ve known Michael for a number of years and have admired and enjoyed his work. In addition to the title poem, the new volume includes “You Unacknowledged Legislators You” and “No Thought Best Thought.” He was one of four poets who read brief selections of new work that evening. The others were Kimberly Lyons, John Godfrey, and Vincent Katz. Music was provided by Drew Gardner.

It was several nights later, when I read the short volume through in its entirety, that something clicked in a major way. A revelation, certainly, but the revelation was this—as smooth and seemingly light as the surface of these poems may be, it’s what’s below the surface that will transfix you, and the world with it.

The syntax is deceptively simple:

what about the other laws
he broke
like verb noun agreement

A little later:

he has an abstinent spirit
proudly renouncing easy pleasures

Easy to read, very easy to hear someone read the lines aloud. But then, there’s the question of specific vocabulary. At a public reading, the words go down easily. But should they? Isn’t the selection of these casual, almost throwaway phrases absolutely intentional? And shouldn’t these exact words lead us to ask certain questions before we proceed to the next line?

For example, what precisely is the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Or the business judgment rule, for that matter? The answers are shocking in a way, and should bring us up short. The definitions are entirely relevant, whether to the banking crisis of 2008 or to our everyday lives.

Then there are the words that we think we know—coruscate, for example. No, it doesn’t mean to excoriate, but to shine, to glisten. And what’s the definition of skeumorphic? What about assortative? What exactly happens in a Faraday Cage? What or where is Ploesti? And have you seen an eidolon lately? 

There is something subtly subversive about this way of using language, the casual allusions that at first glance don’t need to be delved into. Subversive of what, one might ask. Of our complacency, of our pretense to knowledge in a world where knowledge is infinite, perhaps even subversive of theories that presume to explain how language works. 

Then there’s the reference to Hölderlin—this is hilarious, a very backhanded way of referring to someone who is the opposite, someone we’d be relieved to see the last of. Then again, look up Hölderlin, look up his evanescent verse, and one realizes that several things are going on here. Someone is disappearing and someone isn’t, but who has just walked past us isn’t clear.

I Had Every Intention by Michael Gottlieb is available from Faux Press and from Small Press Distribution. A video of the reading can now be seen at Ron Silliman’s blog for November 19.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Wendy Whelan is one of the great dancers of the past twenty-five years. In honor of her retirement from the New York City Ballet on October 18, we’re reprinting a poem written many years ago, when she first rose to prominence.

Wendy Whelan

The lines in her arms,
calf muscles like fists
then elongated,
and her swiftness      
cut through space,
define it.

An exotic,
she moves,
when she moves
time stops.

When she danced with Hübbe,
she was different,
they danced
as if they were
in flagrante delicto,
which is the way
it's supposed to seem.

To see her dance
in Stravinsky Violin Concerto,
very close to perfection,
eternity in a moment,
we want it to last forever.

Is this art or is it life?

Poem written at the bar at Sperry’s, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1994, Steven Fraccaro.

Wendy Whelan first came to my attention in 1989 when she danced in Episodes, Balanchine’s choreography set to the astringent Webern music. After that, it was a progression through the Balanchine leotard ballets, various new pieces, her slinky rendition of the Coffee “Arabian Dance” in The Nutcracker, but ultimately her handling of the woman’s part in the second pas de trois in Agon that defined her as a virtuoso.

That was in 1993. Soon afterwards, she inherited the lead ballerina role in Agon, the most demanding role in the Balanchine modernist canon. There have been numerous very accomplished dancers who have danced this part—Diana Adams, Allegra Kent, Suzanne Farrell, many others. But Whelan brought something else, not herself so much as an exact depiction of the music, the slicing angularity and drama of what Stravinsky and Balanchine must have intended. When she danced, it wasn’t about her, it was about the precise movement of arm and leg, about something both fierce and mysterious.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the various video clips of Diana Adams, Suzanne  Farrell, Darci Bussell, anyone else in Agon. Then watch Whelan dance the pas de deux in the film “Bringing Back Balanchine.” Is there really any question?

Strangely enough, she was also quite magical at the opposite end of the spectrum, in one of Balanchine’s most romantic ballets, Liebeslieder Walzer and in Opus19/The Dreamer by Jerome Robbins. These performances will stay in my mind forever.

Although retiring from City Ballet, Whelan is continuing to dance, with a series of projects scheduled for this year and next. These include Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature and upcoming collaborations with Edward Watson and with Basil Twist.   

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why The Recalcitrant Scrivener Still Matters

The Recalcitrant Scrivener first appeared five years ago. What seemed like a stretch in 2009, that the book publishing industry was in crisis, is now a given. These essays explain why that crisis has developed, with entries on the forgotten history of book publishing, the “Show Don’t Tell Fallacy,” and a hilarious piece entitled “Publishing Kingpin,” in which the author relates his ill-fated but brief career with a mainstream publisher. When the history of literary writing on the web is eventually considered, this short ebook will serve as a useful reference point. The second edition incorporates the blog entries written after the first series of essays was published. Now included are pieces on vampires, the history of Random House, the role of small presses, and the poet Jim Carroll, as well as a new Afterword.

Remember, it all started here…
The Recalcitrant Scrivener

Friday, September 12, 2014

Paintings from the Abyss—Recent Work by Robert Guerra

Bob Guerra is an intriguing personality, someone I’ve known for nearly ten years. He’s best known as an art director on numerous feature films, often working for the designer Dante Ferretti, whose work was recently the subject of an exhibition at MOMA. What is less well known is Bob’s work as a painter, the tone and style of which may surprise people who know him from his film work. 

The paintings I recently saw at his studio are distinctly political, though not in the sense of proselytizing for a specific point of view. Satirical, they are perhaps best considered as being in the tradition of George Grosz. In some ways, the draftsmanship and color palette remind me of Reginald Marsh. But there’s nothing dated about these works. What they manage to do is to hold up a mirror to our society, a funhouse mirror of sorts. And the picture isn’t pretty.

The first painting I saw isn’t particularly American, at least not immediately so. Titled Napoleon Crossing the Alps, it’s a parodic reworking of Jacques-Louis David’s ode to Napoleon. Here, Napoleon sits astride a monstrous carousel horse, but he doesn’t just sit, he is in fact one with the horse, an outgrowth of the horse’s body. Not a centaur, he is a travestied, composite creature. Together, they surmount a mountain of skulls and bones. The palette is red, white, and blue, a gray blue. To say this is about the vanity of war is to say the obvious. Nor is it simply about Napoleon. The effect manages to be both horrifying and darkly comical.

Hotel Haruspex might be said to treat the same theme, albeit more mysteriously. A general sits, wearing an elongated, cylindrical hat. To the uninitiated, this might appear to be a dunce’s hat. In reality, it’s a representation of the hat worn by the Etruscan soothsayer priests known as haruspex. These diviners read the entrails of animals. In the painting, the haruspex holds in his hands the entrails that emanate from a set of empty Roman armor, a mountain of skulls to the left. It is worth remembering that the Etruscans ruled the Romans for centuries, but were then defeated and subsumed, their civilization eliminated. Above and to the left is a film noir neon sign, the sort of sputtering sign that signals something deadly is about to happen in a 1940s movie. The sign, not surprisingly, reads, “Hotel Haruspex.”    

Forming something of a counterpoint to the first two paintings is another pair, The Male Politician and The Female Politician. Neither bodes well for the electoral process. The male candidate wears a carnival jacket, an idiotic grin besots his face as he sports an aging showgirl on his lap, a convention hat on her head. This could be the 1940s, but the ghostly image of the Emperor Augustus presides over them from the upper right, presaging war, murder, mayhem. The candidate is not an Augustus figure; rather, he is clueless, inept, skilled only at being reelected.

The Female Politician provides a similarly jaundiced view of our electoral system. Except that here, a woman who is not young supports an aging, ludicrous toy boy on her lap, more a ventriloquist’s dummy than a man. He bears an eerie resemblance to the male candidate in the matching painting.

The final work I saw was Venus Returning to the Place of Her Birth. She indeed holds a shell, but there the resemblance ends. This Venus is a gruff, wasted strumpet, still proud, but no longer a beauty. Fleshy, nude, she stands in front of a Dickensian industrial landscape, Satanic mills spewing smoke and soot, the home town she has returned to—both she and it are ruins of themselves.

This is not an easy painting to look at. Despite the defiance and pride, there is something sad about her, and about the bleak industrial scene behind her, which seems both outmoded and futuristic. Perhaps she is a product of this monstrous industry, as indeed we all are. 

The five paintings I’ve described represent one strand of the artist’s work on canvas, what I refer to as the satirical strand. A selection of these and other works can be viewed online at the Robert Guerra Studio.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Language Writing and Other Matters

Literary Modernism appeared to have run its course in the English-speaking world by around 1940, at least as far as fiction writing was concerned. New Directions published Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen, Grove Press went on to publish Beckett’s novels, the Nouveau Roman in translation, and William Burroughs, but that’s pretty much it. American novelists who emerged after World War Two may have incorporated specific Modernist techniques, but these were generally used sparingly. Even in the most lauded literary fiction, anything that might engage the reader’s intellect at the expense of his or her emotions was largely eliminated. Early Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Lydia Davis, Siri Hustvedt, and a few others provide the exceptions to this rule.

Poetry was a different matter, with the continuing work of Williams, Cummings, Stevens, Zukofsky, and Oppen, and the emergence of Olson and Creeley. By the 1970s, what became known as Language writing emerged. In New York, this was based around Roof Magazine, edited by James Sherry (1976-1979), A Hundred Posters, edited by Alan Davies (1976-1981), and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, edited by Charles Bernstein and Bruce Andrews (1978-1981). Michael Gottlieb has written an account of the New York group at this period, Memoir and Essay, published by Faux Press and Other Publications, which provides an engaging picture of the aesthetic concerns, intellectual preoccupations, and personal conflicts involved. Dozens of poets around the country were involved in the group. This was a major literary movement, with a focus on language and how it functions. 

In San Francisco, Ron Silliman was developing his specific avant-garde approach to prose poetry, as exemplified in his multipart work, The Age of Huts. From this volume, the section I still come back to is The Chinese Notebook, which can be seen as both a parody of and homage to Wittgenstein’s later work, one that is in fact influenced by that approach. Silliman also went on to develop a theory of reference in which he equated the realistic novel’s appropriation of reality with capitalism’s appropriation of the world we live in. Writers in the San Francisco Language group included Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, and Lyn Hejinian, among others.

It’s worth nothing that John Ashbery published the first of his Three Poems in The Paris Review in 1970. With an oblique approach to prose poetry and to meaning, these works have a certain affinity with Language writing. Nevertheless, Ashbery comes from an earlier generation and is sui generis among the New York School of poets.

When I first met a number of the Language writers in the 1970s, what struck me was that the they were virtually the only writers I knew who were seriously attempting to build on the Modernist impulse and take an intellectual approach to writing. Whether all their work succeeds isn’t the point. What bothers me is that few readers of The New York Review of Books know of Language writing’s existence. A major literary movement has been virtually ignored by the New York publishing world. This despite the fact that Rae Armantrout, one of the original Language writers, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2010. Ashbery’s seminal Three Poems was at one time published by Penguin, but is currently out of print. What does this say about the literary culture of corporate publishing?     

Now, the major publishers aren’t really in the business of publishing poetry—that’s left to small presses and to university presses. Nevertheless, when we come to fiction, it’s as if the major publishing houses steadfastly refuse to publish anything that makes any sort of intellectual demand on the reader. Emotion and easy reader accessibility are the primary criteria. I simply refuse to accept this as a legitimate approach. The phrase “dumbing down” occurs to me in a distinctly sinister light.

I’ve avoided getting into a detailed discussion of the theory and practice of Language writing, which varies from writer to writer. Nor have I discussed individual poets and their work to any significant extent. An interested reader might do well to start with Michael Gottlieb’s Memoir and Essay, which provides a personal view of both Language writing and literary and bohemian New York in the 1970s. For an introduction to the aesthetic issues involved, as well as many of the individual writers, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E is useful. Roof Magazine and A Hundred Posters are sources for important examples of the work. Then, it’s a matter of looking up books by the individual writers, nearly all of them published by small presses.

The thing is, there’s an enormous amount of work to investigate.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Publishing Wars

The struggle between Amazon and Hachette drags on, as it has since February. It’s safe to say that Amazon’s tactics have been heavy handed and coercive. Nevertheless, an enormous amount of nonsense has been written defending Hachette and the major publishing houses. Numerous Hachette authors, most notably Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Colbert, have rallied to the publisher’s defense. A much larger number of self-published writers are supporting Amazon. What is going on here?

The main bone of contention is rumored to be Amazon’s effort to reduce Hachette’s percentage of ebook revenues from 70% to 50% of gross. No one knows whether this is actually true, as the companies aren’t providing any figures. Nor do they appear to be “negotiating” in any meaningful sense. Beyond that, there is the feeling that Amazon wants to position itself as the sole arbiter of ebook prices. This potential loss of decision-making power in the marketplace is what particularly irks traditional publishers, perhaps even more than the issue of the percentage “take.”

Various officers of the Authors Guild, an organization of which I am a member, have rallied to Hachette’s defense. The problem is that whenever Richard Russo or anyone else pens a lengthy missive defending traditional publishing, they provide one side of the story, conveniently leaving out a number of essential points. Namely, that the typical publishing contract is a highly abusive document and that in writing a book, the average author earns less than minimum wage. 

No matter how this turns out, rest assured that no one is going to suggest that authors have a say in the pricing of ebooks. Writers and their books are simply the pawns in this game.

It seems to escape notice that authors published by Hachette have everything to gain by demanding that the publisher split net ebook revenues 50-50, as is done with all other media sales (eg, paperback and movie rights.) If anyone were to actually do the arithmetic, they would see that this would more than make up for any reduction by Amazon in payments to the publisher.

No one wants Amazon to rule the world, or to cut the publisher’s percentage of ebook revenues. But writers should try to win the best terms possible from each of the parties involved. And remember, we’re talking about multi-billion dollar corporations, not benevolent but beleaguered mom-and-pop operations.

A publisher would no doubt argue that being squeezed from above by Amazon and from below by authors would put the company in an untenable position by reducing its profit margin. Which I find darkly humorous, as the overwhelming majority of professional writers I know simply cannot make a living from writing books, whether fiction or nonfiction.

What no one is admitting is that Amazon’s hegemony is the result of incompetence on the part of the major publishers. Now, a business can be incompetent and still make money, for many years. But when the landscape changes, the incompetence is revealed, dramatically so.

To the average reader, this discussion must seem dull as dishwater. People want ebooks that are significantly cheaper than hardcovers and trade paperbacks. The famous authors who have been backing Hachette are highly privileged individuals who are treated well by their publisher and receive very large advances. In contrast, the vast majority of writers with a publishing contract receive miniscule advances and are treated rather shabbily by their publishers.

Maybe it’s time for the serfs to rebel. Or at least to demand better contracts.

For a revealing look at what ebooks mean for a mid-list author, take a look at George Anders’ recent piece in Forbes.

To view the overwhelmingly negative and often acerbic remarks directed at the Authors Guild hierarchy by both members and nonmembers, check the Comments section on the Guild’s blog.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Dante in Hell

The Divine Comedy is one of the pinnacles of world literature. The first section, the Inferno, is nevertheless an extreme work, perhaps the most extreme ever written. Reading it for the third time in as many decades, it occurs to me that I really do need to move on to the Purgatorio and Paradiso. For however fierce its poetry and striking its visual imagery, the Inferno represents a repulsive and indeed repellent view of the world.

I regret that I know Dante only via English translations, though even I can get some sense of the verse by reading the Italian aloud from a bilingual edition. The translation I tend to use is by John Ciardi, though I’ve looked through and consult the Pinsky and Hollander editions, among others. Aside from the sound, there is the miraculous visual sense, which does manage to come through in translation. It is the poet’s supreme mastery of visual description in the Inferno that led certain Victorian writers to refer to Dante as the “master of the disgusting.” I would add that the only writer I know of who manages the grotesque in an analogous manner is William Burroughs in Naked Lunch—it’s just that Burroughs writes from a diametrically opposed moral viewpoint. Previously, Dante’s worldview didn’t bother me, I simply regarded it as a given. This time around was different.

The main problem with the Inferno is that Dante the author is playing God. For it is he and he alone who decides who winds up in hell, including which level of hell they are consigned to and what punishment they receive. It might be possible to shrug this off, or to claim that Dante was “divinely inspired,” but then we hit upon one stubborn fact: Dante has consigned no fewer than five popes to hell, including Boniface VIII, who was pope in 1300, when the action of the poem takes place. To us, in the twenty-first century, this may be amusing, but in the early fourteenth century, it was deadly serious. The papacy was a major political force in the Italian peninsula, and Boniface was a political enemy of Dante’s, the patron of the Black Guelphs, as opposed to Dante’s Florentine faction, the White Guelphs. The question is, why wasn’t Dante excommunicated? Why wasn’t the poem banned?

Remember there was no printing in Dante’s time. The Divine Comedy, when completed in 1321, was circulated among Dante’s friends, mainly fellow poets. The poem’s prestige mounted from there. By the time the papacy became fully aware of the Inferno, Boniface was dead and in disgrace, and his successors were less interested in preserving his good name. Beyond this, Dante in no way encourages sin, quite the reverse in fact. In time, the Church probably saw the Inferno as a useful means of frightening people, and incorporated a certain amount of the poem’s imagery in its doctrinal descriptions of hell.

What we encounter in Dante is a panorama of souls who are tortured in ways that are often far worse than any crime they may have committed. The sadistic nature of the punishments needs to be emphasized. These are tortures devised by a vengeful human being. And the punishments are shockingly grotesque—Ugolino gnawing the brain of his enemy Archbishop Ruggieri is just one example.

Where Dante might be construed as genuinely heretical is not in his treatment of the papacy, but in his taking upon himself the divine prerogative of judgment. Not even Aquinas would dare to do this.  And the logic of Dante’s judgments doesn’t stand up—he has consigned the flatterers to a far lower region of hell than simple murderers. Mythological characters who rebelled against Zeus are sent to the furthest depths. Brutus and Cassius reside next to Judas Iscariot as the worst of mortal villains, eternally devoured by Satan. Follow this chain of reasoning, and the assassination of Julius Caesar is morally equivalent to the crucifixion of Christ.   

In answer to this, the distinction between Dante the creator of the self-enclosed world of the Inferno and Dante the naïve and awestruck protagonist of the poem needs to be understood. In the fourteenth century, readers of the poem generally believed that Dante had in fact been to hell, purgatory, and heaven and returned to relate what he had seen. Few modern readers approach the poem in this way.

No doubt the Purgatorio and Paradiso are more in line with orthodox Catholic teaching—in heaven, Beatrice expounds at length on various theological points and matters of doctrine. Many readers never make it this far. It is hell that readers throughout the ages have found the most compelling. Which may say something about all of us as human beings.

Dante scholars will no doubt bristle at much of what I have said. Perhaps my thesis is the “elephant in the room,” something no one mentions but everyone is aware of. Dante’s moral and logical inconsistencies in no way detract from the aesthetic effect of the Inferno, which contains some of the most powerful and transcendent language ever devised.

Throughout the Inferno, there are a number of exchanges that take place between the protagonist and the damned. Aside from the Paolo and Francesca episode, my favorite is the scene with Farinata degli Uberti, who was a leader of the Ghibellines, archenemies of the Guelphs. Farinata and the protagonist acknowledge each other, politely mock each other, and ultimately treat one another with respect. All very medieval.