Saturday, May 31, 2008

Reading the script he thought it might be better to concentrate on the

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Conceptual Poetry

Questions in response to Laynie Browne's questionnaire for the symposium I wish I were attending.

1. What is conceptual poetry?

I want to say that conceptual poetry is a poetry that relies on an external organizing principle that is very often “outside” of the text, and not always even attached to it. It’s a poetry that usually relies on a body of information and discussion that spans genres and feeds into intellectual and visual conversations as much as poetic conventions.

2. Can poetry be non-expressive?

I think that poetry can be non-expressive to the extent that one person might assume another person’s work to be so, but no, I think that even a work that is designed to eradicate emotion and expression ends up emitting expression and emotion even if it’s negatively charged.

3. Is there such a thing as a “direct presentation of language”?

I would say so, though at present I wouldn’t want to respond further than that…

4. Intellect rather than emotion?

Why choose? I want—need—both. We all do.

5. Dismantle this line-drawing

6. What is the purpose of form and formlessness?

Thinking of the documentary Helvetica where one of the type designers talks about the space beyond the letters themselves as more important. For me, form and formlessness, just as emotion and intellect, are constantly engaged, and never taken for granted.

7. Distinguish between procedural and conceptual

Procedural occurs within conceptual, no?

8. What formal restraints do you practice every day?

I try not to judge.

9. What is the responsibility of the writer?

To be conscious not only of her own project, but its place in the larger project: the self doesn’t always have to win.

10. Why are women virtually excluded from the UBU web anthology?:

In reality I cannot say as I wasn’t part of the editorial process. One might also ask why the list seems so white. I am constantly surprised by people’s inability to see anything other than versions of their own ideas: whatever does not mirror back politely is rejected. Further, when the editor is extremely provincial, that other is then attacked. This is nowhere more evident than in the language of reviewing and criticism: that's when you see whole histories of a person's points of reference, and in so many cases they are male, male, male.

I suppose that's where the power is though isn't it?

When it comes to editing, in many cases this is what we are witnessing.

Addendum: Clearly there is something more afoot. Something more direct. I offer the following excerpt from Spahr and Young:
In the middle of all this convesation we wote to Craig Dworkin and asked him what was up with all the men and thei love of estictive, numbe based pocesses and he said he didn't know but he told us a joke about a photogaph he once saw of himself and Kenny Goldsmith, Rob Fitterman, Christian Bök, and Darren Wershler-Henry, all in a line, all basically the same age, same stocky build, same bad haicuts, and black t-shits. We could think of no photogaph of Jena Osman, Nada Gordon, Caroline Bergvall, Joan Retallack, Johanna Drucker, and Harryette Mullen all looking the same age, same build, same bad haicuts, same black t-shits. Fo some eason this wok did not unite them. And how thee still seemed, like Michelle Grangaud, elected to the Oulipo in 1995, oom fo only one o two women wites to build a caee in this categoy
This "r-less" text can be found on Drunken Boat along with responses by Kenneth Goldsmith in which he reiterates that gender has nothing to do with "grouping."

Wall on Wall

This weekend in the Globe & Mail.

The Hound on Wall at Moma here and here and other posts...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Jean Chretien & Baby Tattoo

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How to Edit, Chains, Flatland

How to Write is one of Stein's most invigorating books. A cheeky romp in her repetitive, disjunctive style, offering up rogue associations and peering under the grammatical kilt of English. It includes "Saving the Sentence," "Sentences and Paragraphs," "Arthur a Grammar," "A Grammarian," "Sentences," "Regular Regularly In Narrative," "Finally George A Vocabulary," and my personal favourite, "Forensics." "They will have nothing to do with still," she begins that section. What are Forensics? "Forensics are elaborated argument..."

We have a new version of How to Write, or a variation on the theme in any case. Calgary visual and conceptual poet derek beaulieu has started an exhaustive project that will be comprised of "every incidence of the word 'edit' in the over 1100 different English-Language texts store at Project Gutenberg indexed as starting with the letter 'A'." The chapbook, from No Press (more on that later), is a slender volume titled How To Edit: Chapter A, and will be, when beaulieu arrives at Chapter Z, a conceptual novel of some dimensions.

The book begins with an apt quote from Walter Benjamin, "But when shall we actually write books like catalogues?" One can't be sure what the question mark is doing at the end of that sentence, and what precisely Benjamin is hoping for or intoning, which makes it all the more fitting for this project. What beaulieu offers through his compiling and archiving is a slice of literary consciousness around the practice of and attitude toward the practice of editing. I have voiced both my excitement of the conceptual novel, and my hesitations regarding its limitations as a readable text (as far as one can define readable) both in private, and on this blog, so isn't surprising that I went into the text with a sense of reserved curiosity. And lo, I was once more rewarded. Not a predictable kind of narrative here, but pleasure, certainly pleasure.

The volume beings "It was his intention to edit them with the necessary notes and vocabularies..." establishing a kind of odd formality that is carried through, even as the lines offered shift from the banal:
In later years, after Amorach's death, the marked advance in the outcome of the firm as regards type and paper and title-pages and designs may be attributed to Froben, who was man of business enough to realize the importance of getting good men to serve him--Erasmus to edit books, Gerbell and Oecolampadius to correct the proofs, Graf and Holbein to provide the ornaments.
to the pulpish,
'You used to be a literary cuss,' he said at length, 'didn't you edit the magazine before you left?'
This is uncreative writing in the sense of Kenneth Goldsmith's infamous course offered at U Penn, and it's a clever, fun, and so far I would say successful project. Far from being the kind of non-emotive product one might suspect such a conceptual work to intone, the very act of judiciously searching and compiling offers us a unique perspective into the very tangible world of book making, and for the author's deep respect for and love of the physical as well as conceptual arts. In some ways this is a romantic novel even as it is concerned with notions of "archive" "rematerialization," or as Craig Dworkin points out language as "printed matter - information which has a kind of physical presence." In his introduction to conceptual writing, he quotes Robert Smithson, who said "My sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas." So, A Heap of Language, Dworkin suggests. And like the work of Kenneth Goldsmith much is revealed in the unearthing of that materiality.

Artistically, globally, this idea of matter as a preoccupation makes sense. Artists from Edward Burtynsky to Andreas Gursky are trying to deal with the sheer enormity of matter in its various stages of development and redevelopment. So why not text? And moving away from romantic notions of narrative might be essential too. These are movements that find the edges for us. The gesture in the darkened room that finds the wall so we can all creep out without tripping over ourselves. This sort of project, can be instructive, illuminating. How To Write has great promise.

In that respect beaulieu has been busy this year. Last week a launch of
Chains with accompanying art, and in the fall Flatland: A Romance of Dimensions (Information as Material, 2007), another conceptual novel,with an afterword by none other than Marjorie Perloff. Christian Bok describes the project succinctly:
Flatland by Derek Beaulieu constitutes a translation of the science-fiction novella Flatland by the Victorian, political satirist, E. A. Abbott (who depicts a 2D-universe, inhabited by a society of polygons, all of whom remain oblivious to our own 3D-universe). Beaulieu uses this book as an occasion to transform the action of reading into a phylum of mapping, doing so by plotting the successive occurrence of letters, from line to line in a current edition of the text, thus connecting the dots, first by linking all the As, then by linking all the Bs, proceeding in this way through the page, 26 times, before moving on to the next page of text.
You can find a sample of Flatland in the Mis/Translation folio of Drunken Boat, and the entire book is now available as a pdf through Ubu. In her afterword Perloff notes that while "the page may thus be an EKG that gives us no information about value, a computer scan that gives that gives us no information about code." She goes on, "this is surely intentional: beaulieu has designed the book as an exercise in sameness and difference..." and further, "reading in this context, means to look very closely at what is in front of you so that you become familiar with the circuit of differentials. It is an effort that takes us back to Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. And Stein's aphoristic sentence, 'The difference is spreading,' might be beaulieu's epigraph." While I appreciate the concept here, particularly in its early stages when beaulieu and I were corresponding about it, and while I respect and support the impulse to inact a response to such an odd text, as a reader I am not in fact satisfied by it. Nor can I agree that the impulse takes us back to Stein's project. Why? In short, listening to beaulieu talk about the project is much more engaging than encountering the textual artifact. That for me, has to be a line. In order for a conceptual novel to be successful, for this reader, surely it must--and of course the parameters of this will be infinitely debatable--the text must be able to speak for itself. How to Edit, it seems to me, succeeds on that score. I don't think Flatland does.

Finally a note about Chains, which is visual poetry (see an example here from an earlier post) that pushes at the boundaries and restrictions of the “regular life” of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet." I've written about beaulieu's visual work before: his Basho Poems, co-written/created with with Gary Barwin, his work reading the newspaper, both smart and beautifully executed. beaulieu may well be the most articulate poet in Canada when it comes to visual and conceptual poetry, and he has much to offer pedagogically as well as artistically. Records of earlier discussions and responses can be found here. I would love to read more critical work that opens up this work for the uninitiated.

As an aside, if you haven't heard Stein yet, please do so. Here she is reading from Making of Americans. Why the formatting has changed over the course of this post I have no idea...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Alison Calder on Lahey and Canadian poetry

A fine review of Anita Lahey's book by Alison Calder. I wrote about Lahey's book in an essay in Gulf Coast Review, and discussed Calder's book a few weeks back. They are both fine poets with strong books in the past year, so intriguing to see what the one says of the other. I offer you the end of Calder's review:
Lahey is a competent writer, shown by her skill with line breaks, by her publications, and by the awards she has won. But the collection has a depressing sameness to it, a sameness attributable not only to Lahey, but symptomatic of a larger body of writing by young Canadian poets. Here are the ekphrastic verses that seek to animate paintings; here are the several-poems-written-on-a-particular-theme sections. Because the voice she uses is so invariable, whether she’s animating a figure hanging laundry, a World War II battlefield, or an aging aunt in Cape Breton, the specific details she works with seem to disappear into vagueness. All these characters seem, improbably, to be wrestling with the same problems.
Good point. I suspect there are poets who want to hide away in sameness.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

To sonnet, to sonnet

There's a new anthology of Canadian sonnets out and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Will it reflect the form's flexibility? Its ability to be shaped by any and all poets who care to engage in the form? This morning I came across the following in David Trinidad's new collection. Was I expecting to come across a crown of sonnets here? Not quite. But no one owns form. Thank God. And tone cannot be legislated. And form shouldn't be confused with taste.

We both wanted to look like Patti Smith
on her Horses album: disheveled, pale,
thin, intense. You were scanning Meredith's
"Modern Love" for British Lit. I thought stale
anyone before Sexton. You laughed, threw
back your head. I puffed a Marlboro Light.
In truth, you were too hearty, and I too
uptight, to do punk. I praised, as twilight
dimmed the gray valley, a poem you'd read
at the student reading: a pitcher cracks,
foreshadows a car crash. The skyline bled
behind you. I'd also read that night--racked
with stage fright, trembling uncontrollably.
You seemed at ease, more confident than me...

Saturday, May 03, 2008


volume, originally uploaded by nardell.

Friday, May 02, 2008

KI Press & Alice Major

Clearing up some of the dozens of dog-eared books stashed in my office at the U of C. Many of these won't make it on to the blog, as I bury my head in my own work for the final six weeks of my Alberta tenure.

Alice Major's The Occupied World is deft and quick in its sketches, and that's really what it feels like, an artists sketchbook transcribed. As with Alison Calder there is ample observation and Major glides into the nut of the poem. Here is one of my favorites, "A Woman Wary of Instinct"

You have no maternal instincts
one man lashed at her.

Where does an instinct go?

Next we get the word "Mouselings" followed on the next line by "curled in a saucer." Here things are getting out of themselves a little. We go into dark territory, find them the next morning "cold thumbs of white wax." My readings at the moment are concerned with the nature of representation I suppose, or how we want to make a leap of metaphor, as with the wax, but only within a kind of "naturalistic" framework.

It's an important question I think, and one that for me, exposes a deep anxiety in the lyric world, but also in the prose world I think, and certainly for me, is a key concern of modernist fiction if not poetry. Is this a fear of "other" in one's own imagination? Or in a political sense? Take a poem such as "What Kind of Woman Doesn't Want A Child?" Now that's a title that promises to get at the frayed incisions and expectations of gender, but we go instead to a soothing depiction of nature, the "churn of stones," lovely enough, but the predictable ease of the tides doesn't have the same leap as "thumbs of wax." Not quite "untethered."

Types of Canadian Women Volume II introduces a writer of invention and precision. This is a beautiful book from a young Canadian poet named K.I. Press, and another in a line of stunning books from Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia. Its the kind of book you might find hanging around a coffee table long after you thought you were through with it. Let it be said that continuing imaginatively the work of one Henry J. Morgan’s biographical dictionary, Types of Canadian Women, Volume I (originally published in 1903) is a fabulous idea for a book. I loved the project before I broke the spine.

The titles: "Devoted to all kinds of Sport," "Author of Dairying for Profit," "Especially for Working Girls" are fun, and I loved fact that we get a photograph on one page and a poem on the other--a kind of monologue for each woman. The poems themselves are cheeky, not narratively challenging, but fresh and accessible which I think was the goal. But they might be perhaps too accessible--I'm wondering about it as a teaching tool, for example. Does it give an account of another time? Does it work historical language? This leads to my only quibble, and that is a want of more varied narratives and personalities, of more varied diction, or form, and again what is becoming a refrain for me this year, that element of surprise. Why not a bit of outlandish vocabulary? More varied structures?? Why not make something of that Victorian (or I suppose Edwardian mixed with bush) language?

And while this might not seem a fair criticism, I would hope for a bit more agency, too. All one has to do is watch a pre-1950 movie (Stage Door, for example, or Woman of the Year...) to realize how surprisingly confident, outspoken, witty and comical women were, or go back further to Margaret Cavendish, Lady Mary Montagu, or closer to home, what Atwood did with The Journals of Susanne Moodie. Time is not an arrow. History is not a straight line.

But what a fun project, and beautifully produced. Here's one that stood out:


Beneath giant parasols, courtside,
we barely spoke above our cream
and wild strawberries. I had acquired

another white costume, long,
embroidered with pearls and honey-bees;
white gloves, dancing shoes, cake.
And still he said nothing.

On his white trousers
I smeared the berries, a pink explosion
for jealous laundry girls to find.
For his wife, and for my grey, mossy husband,
just this: a little knob inside me.
For him, to be haunted
by my mouth
a pink explosion.