To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, August 31, 2015

John Rufo: An Interview with Jennifer Bartlett

cover photo by Emma Bee Bernstein
[Jennifer Bartlett is the author of several books of poetry, including, most recently Autobiography / Anti-Autobiography (Theenk Books, 2015). With Sheila Black and Michael Northen, she co-edited Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, an anthology of poets who happen to have primarily visible physical disabilities. This anthology was one of the first of its kind, marking a historical gathering together of poets who had usually not been identified as disabled, such as Bernadette Mayer, and those who are publically affiliated with disability poetics.

In addition to writing her own poetry, Bartlett is also at work on an extensive biography of Larry Eigner, an extremely influential poet of the Black Mountain School and the Language movement, who lived in Swampscott, MA for his entire life as a poet with cerebral palsy. Eigner corresponded with many poets throughout his life and wrote dozens of books. Jennifer Bartlett happens to have cerebral palsy.]

John Rufo: You’ve said you’re responding a bit to Larry Eigner in your poetry, because obviously you’ve been working on the biography for what, four years now?

Jennifer Bartlett: Yes, four years.

JR: And you’re at the archive at NYU library reading his letters in order to write the biography. Could you talk a bit about writing poetry in terms of archival work? You’re almost resurrecting a person through documents. What’s that experience like in terms of the work of collage? I know you said you had a bit of anxiety about the biography because, when it comes out, people’s versions of Larry may not be the kind of version you assemble of Eigner in the book. How do you feel about being a poet and working in the archive? Because typically the archive is for the academic, you know, it’s the place of the researcher, but you’re going in as an artist into the archive – what does that feel like? Or is that experience surreal or strange for you?

JB: When I go to the Fales Collection I do feel like a researcher, though I’m not exactly. What’s interesting is that I’m not really on the outside. A scholar is on the outside, but I’m sort of on the inside because I go in there as a fellow poet. For example, I found some letters that belong to a friend of mine in New Mexico. That happens all the time with the people who are alive, because I probably know them. And there’s a lot of weird overlaps. Do you know who Cid Corman is?

JR: Only through some of your own work, actually.

JB: Cid lived in Japan and edited a magazine called Origin. I’ve gotten to know him through the letters: he was Larry’s longest correspondent. They corresponded weekly, pretty much, or daily, from 1949 until Larry died. So I got to know him very well through the letters. Here’s the funny thing: in the early 90s, I went to Naropa to take some summer classes. And I got a scholarship but I didn’t really have a place to stay. So they ended up putting me in this apartment with Cid Corman, who absolutely did not want to be sharing the same apartment with me. Totally grumpy. He did make me tea, though. It was very weird. And I had no idea who he was. And I didn’t know who Larry Eigner was either. But Corman being at Naropa is detailed in letters to Larry. Larry’s letters are particularly difficult. He has a lot of typos and he uses a lot of abbreviations. I found while I was writing the biography, I sort of read around Larry and read whatever other people said first…it was easier to understand. From what I can see, it was this stream-of-consciousness talking where he would just like do a monologue and go on and on about all of his different things…and because he only had use of one of his hands on the typewriter, he was making so many errors, and writing things with brevity.

JR: Did the people he was corresponding with know that he had cerebral palsy?

JB: They all knew. Well…that varied but mostly. I don’t know if they concretely knew that he had cerebral palsy but they knew his situation: he lived with his parents and he used a wheelchair. Last week I went through a bunch of old Evergreen Reviews and I was really surprised by how much information was in them. Larry was sitting in Swampscott and he was very isolated, but publications like the Evergreen Review featured dance, visual art, poetry and there was a lot of information coming through these journals to him. He sent out work constantly. Larry’s situation was one where he was free to focus entirely on writing. Also, Larry really wanted relationships (via visitors and letters) with editors and other poets.

JR: I think we can talk about Larry Eigner for a long time, but I want to talk about your own work too, if that’s okay? In your new book – Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography – which came out last summer – it’s got…is it Emma [Bee Bernstein] on the cover of it?

JB: No, no…that’s a photo that Emma Bee took of her friend Courtney.

JR: That cover photo made me think of your father’s critique of the presentation of an author’s photograph on his or her own book, to use the image of the beautiful poet to sell the book.

What I love about the photo on Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography is that the photo is not of you, it’s of someone else. I think that resonates powerfully with the very end of the book, which feature italicized lines that read:

               the persona is erased
               so that, this could be, not my autobiography per se,
               but the autobiography of any girl
JB: I never thought of that connection!

JR: Because you finish the book, you close it and go back to the cover, and of course, it’s another person on the cover, it’s not you, but it could be anybody. And of course the book is these two long movements: Autobiography and Anti-Autobiography. When you were writing the book did they come out as individual poems that you re-shaped as something longer? Or did it come out like a monologue almost?

JB: No, no. Both parts of the book are each one long poem. It was totally written together.

JR: And was the process of writing those two long pieces sort of sporadic? Or did you do it almost in one go?

JB: No…when I write books they’re generally written over a few weeks. It’s all in one. But it takes a few weeks…And two weeks isn’t a long time! Some people work on their books for years. It takes me years to get it published…that’s the problem! Like I’m sitting on a manuscript right now that I finished…I must have finished it two years ago.

JR: When did you write Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography? So it came out last summer, but when did you actually compose it?
JB: I wrote it in 2010.

JR: A lot of poets will put out a book and feel the release of that work into the world and it’s kind of calming to have the book be done, but then the work almost feels dead. Do you feel like the work isn’t active anymore? Do you feel like you have to move onto the next thing?

Or do you feel like the work in Autobiography/Anti-Autobiography still feels fresh and alive for you?

JB: Oh it’s very alive for me.

JR: It is an energetic book in a lot of ways, with these very short sections that feel like bursts. And it reminds me too of the way that movement is talked about in the book, where movement is all stop/start and sudden. Birds take off, while the speaker realizes that s/he does not move like a bird. There’s the looking out into the field of geese [in the lines “looks out on the field among / the geese, this will all be over soon] but the speaker does not have that kind of movement. Or in the first lines of the book: “to walk means to fall / to thrust forward.”

 And there’s a lot of white space around these movements. When you’re designing the poem for the page, how much is the blank space contributing to the movement of the poem itself.

JB: It’s completely contributing. But the new book is all in couplets. And it’s also very narrative. It’s narrative to the point where I read it somewhere and I asked if it was too narrative. I mean I’m not exactly in any hurry to publish it; it’s kind of a controversial book, because it’s about an affair. Even though it erases the person it’s talking to. It has series of letters all starting with “Dear” and then the person’s name and then a comma. And it goes on erasing the “Dear” … like then it’s “ear” and then “ar” and then their name…It has a letter running through it. It has lists, drawings, narratives, and letters but it’s all done in couplets. And the last line of the book is something like… “It must weird to get so many emails in couplets!” So it has this hint that actually the whole book is just a long email. But there’s just a hint of that.
And mainly it’s about the mixed identity of “Jennifer Bartlett,” me and the other Jennifer Bartlett [the painter], and that it’s also mainly about how people are really good and really bad. Because the character is really good because she loves all the little animals and helps people but she’s really bad because she let herself fall in love with someone who’s cheating on their partner. And so trying to figure out how these two things can reside in one person. And it could really be anything that you view as really kind and compassionate and not kind or compassionate residing within a person. And there are funny asides: talking about my dad and his animals, with pictures. I’m really excited about this book.

JR: I know your first book is called Derivative of the Moving Image and I’m interested in your drawings incorporated in this new book.  Do you see your poetry as ekphrastic?

JB: It’s really inspired by my friend Andrea Baker, who wrote a book called Famous Rapes and it’s a history of rape featuring images made with packing tape. The whole thing is art done with packing tape. Also lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Muriel Rukeyser. Muriel wrote a biography of a scientist, she wrote a couple of novels, she wrote something about Houdini. She was a socialist, an activist, a mother, and a great poet. And for Muriel, and for Andrea, and some other people, I’ve been thinking about how being a poet…you just don’t have to write poems, you can write about whatever you want! So I’m very, very involved in this biography and then I’m also very slowly writing a memoir. That’s something I have a lot of anxiety about. But I am slowly working on it. And then, who knows if this will come to pass, but this summer my husband and I are supposed to make a graphic novel about our son Jeffrey.

JR: And what does Jeffrey think about that?

JB: He hasn’t really paid much attention. But poetry is everything. And that’s where I think Andrea’s the most influential. Because she’s an antique dealer, she restores paintings, she writes poems, she writes memoirs.

JR: Your preface in the anthology Beauty is a Verb titled “Exit Through the Gift Shop” has the line: “Poetry is something slightly more complicated than my half-fare subway fare.” Being able to put the poetic into a lot of different instances, almost, or even looking at the creation of an anthology of disability poetics as kind of collaging, too, makes it more exciting. And in the introduction to Beauty is a Verb, you wrote that before doing the anthology you didn’t know that much about disability poetics.

JB: As a category, yes. To me, Crip poetics and Disability Poetics are genres, even though they not recognized as genres. If you go on the Academy of American Poets website, you’ll find that Cowboy Poetry is there as a genre, but Crip Poetry is not! And it’s very much a genre… people like Jim Ferris, Petra Kuppers, Neil Marcus…

JR: I think it’s Jillian Weisse…she wrote in a piece titled “the Disability Rights Movement and the Legacy of Poets with Disabilities,” about someone coming up to her and asking if she’s a crip poet. She just said “yes” because she thinks they just want to hear that affirmation. She’s not really feeling comfortable using this term. And I was wondering if you could illuminate the difference between “disability poetics” and “crip poetry” if there is a difference between the terms?  

JB: When I say Disability Poetics I mean Crip Poetics: I mean the same thing, though I’m not the person to ask. I’m coming into this as an outsider. Even though I’m disabled and write disability poems sometimes, I’m a Black Mountain scholar. I adore Robert Duncan. And Robert Duncan had myopia. That influenced his work in all kinds of ways. He was ill for a long time. I believe he had kidney failure and he was on dialysis later in his life.

JR: Duncan’s myopia is present in his work as a literal and metaphorical device. You were the first person who mentioned this to me: the use of blindness and of deafness in hundreds of years of English language verse as metaphor. Even contemporary poets like Louise Glück or Frank Bidart have done it. Able-bodied poets putting on a persona.

JB: Jillian Weisse writes Louise Glück’s poem in the anthology. There are different categories. Using poetry as a persona; using impairment as a metaphor. And impairment as a metaphor is deeply, deeply embedded into our society. I mean I get on people all the time but it’s actually not that big of a deal. There are words you shouldn’t use, like “retarded” or “crippled.” If you say “blind date” or whatever it’s not that big of a deal. But what is a big deal is it keeps up the negative perception of how people view disability. I just feel frustration of not feeling listened to. For example, I had to meet my friend in Soho yesterday and I went to American Apparel there, and not only were they not wheelchair accessible, but they had these stairs with no banisters so I could barely walk up them. I’ve been a lot more conscious of this since I had my knee surgery because it’s very hard for me to navigate going up and down stairs.

JR: And you share a lot of your frustrations in your Facebook posts, especially, which I love, although you don’t really use Facebook as much anymore. You were posting online about Submittable, for example, and you expressed concerns that Submittable doesn’t accommodate for poets with disabilities who can’t see the screen or navigate the system.

JB: I hate the Internet…I really wish it didn’t exist. But I do have to say it’s very special for people with disabilities because there are people with very significant disabilities who can’t even leave bed, and can’t leave their house and can communicate with others and also have a voice. Not as much of a voice as I would like, but it’s really a place for people who are very marginalized with disabilities to be able to communicate and hear each other and all of that.

JR: It opens up that space, right?

JB: I was recently sent a video of this guy who uses a wheelchair and adopted a dog who is paralyzed in its back two legs, and the dog would scoot around. And it was inspiration porn. It was all about overcoming your disability and it was schlocky. But I was like, you know what? I love it anyway! It’s adorable. I can relate to it. I have a handicapped dog. It’s very sweet and is kind of inspiring. It’s also totally gross and patronizing….

JR: Like you recognize the wrong vocabulary that’s being used, and you recognize the patronizing or condescending way it’s being shot or presented, but then you also realize the sentimental feeling of it. That complicated feeling of being two ways at the same time…Now I’m not saying that that video is poetry…but I’m asking if that feeling of being pulled in two different directions at the same time is something poetic to you?

JB: Yeah.

JR: I always remember the section of Autobiography / Anti-Autobiography: 
“Drag my bones out to Coney Island and feel free to make an example out of me. Perhaps people will pay a nickel to get in. I'm tired of giving the show out for free. Drag me through the field of saints. Bless me, pray for me, or rub my head for good luck.”

It’s this horribly kind of funny and really sad section at the same time.

JB: People keep telling me “God bless you” at least twice a day. And so I just go “God bless you!” And they look a little puzzled. And I say it with a lot of enthusiasm. Because it’s a put-down. It’s horrible. So I give it right back.

[note. The preceding interview by John Rufo is the first in a book of conversations with experimental poets on matters of race, gender, sexuality, and disability. (J.R.)]

Monday, August 24, 2015

Jonathan C. Stalling: Yíngēlìshī [Sinophonic English] & a New Global Poetics

[What follows is a taste of Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngēlìshī (Counterpath Press), an amazing instance of experimental “translation” or othering (here between or as a blending of Chinese & English) that may have been overlooked at the time of its original publication.  What I wrote of it then I think still holds, viz: “The magic in these poems is in the incredibly generative force that Stalling derives from the juxtaposition of sounds between his two target languages, English & Chinese.  The overlap & mix, while it may resemble other procedures in contemporary experimental poetry, is in other ways unprecedented – drawing from the experience of bilingual speakers & a deep understanding of underlying strains in the poetry of both languages, with the result, even for those of us limited to the written or spoken English words, of a ravishingly beautiful series of poems both spoken & sung.  I have now been going through these from a number of different directions, reading & listening, finding satisfactions, like those of all real poetry, that grow deeper & richer from one immersion to the next.  Yíngēlìshi, once entered, has enough pleasures to last a reader’s lifetime.”
          A fuller sounding of the “opera” derived from this can be found at (J.R.)]

I. Prologue
Years ago now
I spent a morning in a small park
at the center of Beijing Normal University.
Hunched over in benches,
or pacing back and forth,
students are reading English aloud from textbooks.
I can’t recall what anyone was saying;
I had not attended to the frequency of meaning,
but to the frequencies of sound—
the strange opening of Chinese vibrations
beneath the surface of each English word.

They spoke Chinese syllables
rearranged into English syntax and diction;
and Chinese made a home in English,
had become English
without having stopped being Chinese.

Turn you head slightly to the left,
and you hear English,

slightly to the right,

straight ahead, neither,

We were all foreigners here.
In this fusion of Chinese and English
we all have a choice to make.
We can pull back the curtain of sound
to peek through the windows
or just rest a while in our dark rooms.

For years I immersed myself
in this Yíngēlìshī
and its chanted songs, its beautiful poetry
have changed everything
I thought I knew about our languages

II. Introducing Yíngēlìshī

I call this fusion of my two languages, Sinophonic English, or, Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 (spelled in Sinophonic English). I have chosen these characters to oppose popular ideas of  “Chinglish” as “bad English.” Instead, I want to bring awareness to its eerie poetic beauty, its haunting music, and to the absolutely singular poetry it is capable of generating. Of course, “Sinophonic English” is not particular to the students in the park, but is fast becoming a dominant global dialect of English. A fusion of the two primary languages of globalization: Chinese and English, variations of this Sinophonic English is being spoken by more people than there are Americans alive (over 350 million), and has already begun to transform the language of the global marketplace. English purists everywhere will no doubt begin to clamor toward “rescuing” English from this Sinophonic dialect, but I am more interested in experimenting with this new global language. Since 1997 I have been experimenting with this linguistic fusion and working toward a transpacific imagination where a Chinese-English poetry, poetics, philosophy, and ethics might be born in a language that belongs to both Chinese and English speakers, and yet neither as well. But in the end, I have simply fallen in love with both the poetry generated between these languages and the translingual voices that emanate from them.

To bring this dream of Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 into the world, I have rewritten a large portion of a totally ordinary English phrasebook that you can pick up in most any Chinese bookstore, which teaches English through transliteration. In a sense, this book is not unlike Duchamp’s “urinal” insofar as both are “found art.” But I have totally rewritten this book by changing all the original’s simple Chinese characters (chosen to “pronounce” common English phrases) into complex Chinese poetic phrases and “poems.” I have recomposed the Chinese in mixture of modern and Classical characters to suggest passages resonating with Confucian meanings like the Sinophonic fusion of the characters     gū dé mào níng which can be translated as “Even alone, the Moral one appears peaceful” but is heard by the English speaker as “Good Morning.” So the Sinophonic poems that make up the first half of this book exist as short Chinese character stanzas, but like the phrase book, they are sandwiched within Chinese and English to reveal to all readers what is taking place both aurally and semantically in the poem. Take for example this more Buddhist leaning stanza:

Please Forgive me
pǔ lì sī , fó gěi fú mí
vast private profits,
Buddha offers impermanent mysteries

Here only the line “普利私,佛给浮谜” is truly Sinophonic English poetry, but the other lines are there to let both Chinese and English readers know what the line means in both Chinese and English.

So on one level this is a book of experimental Chinese poetry that blends classical allusions and contemporary vernacular to be read as “stand-alone” Chinese poems, yet to the English speaker, the very same characters resonate accented English phrases that tell the story of a Chinese speaker who uses his/her limited English to negotiate the trials of traveling to and becoming lost in America. For as it turns out, the phrases of this handbook end up constructing a narrative, a tragedy in fact since the “protagonist” is robbed soon after arriving in America and is left alone in an alien language and land with no friends, no money, no passport and no way to understand the English language which appears to have swallowed her/him whole. When I first read this simple phrase book, I felt so moved, not because of its melodramatic tenor that capitalizes on the commonly exaggerated danger of traveling abroad, but because of the accented voice that never really becomes English because it never really stops being Chinese. If the vulnerable voice of the protagonist is the tragic “chanted song” of this book, then the poems that take shape within the phonetic architecture of this simple story are its beautiful poetry.

What emerges on the pages
is a figment of a transpacific imagination,
a dimly remembered dream of translingual consciousness
born in the strange half-light of cross-linguistic procreation.

Regardless of whether you are an English Speaker
a Chinese speaker (or both),
it is my hope that you will wake up
from this dream of reading
with the dim memory of having spoken in another’s language.

III. “Evolving from Embryo and Changing the Bones: Translating the Sonorous”

The second half of this book offers a variation on the dream of Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗. What would it be like to translate sound itself? What if we could translate not only the meanings of poems, but their songs? The poems in this section arise from such an attempt by invoking Huang Tingjian’s (黃庭堅 1045-1105) notion of 夺胎 换骨or “evolving from embryo and changing the bones” which instructs poets to create their own poetry by either mimicking the content or the form of earlier poetry. An exquisite poet of the first order, Huang Tingjian, raised mimicry to the level of high art and philosophy by revealing that every act of mimicry results in an act of transformation. My translations follow both of Huang’s directives to mimic both the content (all translation does this) and the form by following all the basic aural constraints of Classical Chinese poetic forms (number of syllables, rhyme schemes, and tonal prosody).


           shè    qīng     qīng                  lin          xīn 
guèst     ìnn    greēn    greēn      wil            lòw   sheēn

Yet these poems are also only figments of transpacific imagination: for even the same sounds (untranslated) are not the same sounds to those who hear them. There is no single, original song because everyone who hears it, feels it differently (especially those from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds). So why try… Ezra Pound would argue that one should “Fill [your] mind with the finest cadences [you] can discover, preferably in a foreign language.”  But I am not sure we need to reduce these poems to such “usefulness”; instead in my earliest publication of Sinophonic English I wrote that “I write Chinese in English and English in Chinese, which, in its simultaneous success and failure, offers not a translation but a space for the translingual to be imagined.” (Chain, 2003, 109)

[author’s addendum. This excerpt from my collection of poems Yingelishi was published on the Poems and Poetics blog in 2009, a full year before the work was performed as an Opera at Yunnan University and two years before it was published by Counterpath Press in its current book form ( In the years since, I have continued to explore the interlingual and transgraphic spaces between Chinese and English leading to my latest work “Mirrored Resonance: The English Rime Tables,” a recreation of a 12th century Chinese “rime table” (an ancient pronunciation dictionary that uses Chinese characters to represent sounds rather than meanings) where I am replicating every formal aspect of the original (a slow process as I am constructing a movable woodblock printing press to do so). While it may look like a Chinese text, it is not. Instead the work is an embodiment of a totally new system of transcribing English into Chinese Characters which functions with the same or greater phonetic precision as the Latin alphabet.  The whole English language now lives in this script (over 130,000 words though the rime tables only use a representative sample). Until the rime tables are complete, the work primarily takes the form of lectures and demonstrations. The first was a TEDx talk (delivered to a general audience with a focus on the “origin story” and “applicability/utility” rather than poetics) and the second was delivered at Penn State in March 2015 where I discuss this work in relation to a set of theoretical concepts I have tagged as “graphonic drifting”, “phonotaxis,” and “heterographia,” and in relation to notions of “the sacred” as it relates to sound especially across and between languages.]

Monday, August 17, 2015

Symposium of the Whole To Be Reissued: An Announcement & Pre-Face

[In advance of the expanded third edition of Technicians of the Sacred on which I’m now working, University of California Press is planning to reissue the long out-of-print Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics, edited by Diane Rothenberg & me in 1983.  In Symposium, as a kind of natural companion volume to Technicians, we’ve followed the idea of an ethnopoetics from predecessors such as Vico, Blake, Thoreau, & Tzara to more recent essays & manifestos by poets & social thinkers such as Olson, Eliade, Snyder, Turner, & Baraka.  The themes range widely,  from the divergence of oral & written cultures to the shaman as proto-poet & the reemergence of suppressed & rejected forms & images: the goddess, the trickster, & the “human universe” among others The book’s three ethnographic sections (“Workings,” “Meanings” & “Doings”) demonstrate how various poetries are structured & composed, how they reflect meaning & worldview, & how they are performed in cultures where all art may be thought of as art-in-motion.  “The cumulative effect,” as the book’s old cover has it, “is a new reading of the poetic past and present, in the editors’ words ‘a changed paradigm of what poetry was or now could come to be.’” 
           What follows here is the opening of the Pre-face to the 1983 edition. (J.R.)] 

When the industrial West began to discover – and plunder – “new” and “old” worlds beyond its boundaries, an extraordinary countermovement came into being in the West itself.  Alongside the official ideologies that shoved European man to the apex of the human pyramid, there were some thinkers and artists who found ways of doing and knowing among other peoples as complex as any in Europe and often virtually erased from European consciousness. Cultures described as “primitive” and “savage” – a stage below “barbarian” – were simultaneously the models for political and social experiments, religious and visionary revivals, and forms of art and poetry so different from European norms as to seem revolutionary from a later Western perspective.  It was almost, looking back at it, as if every radical innovation in the West were revealing a counterpart – or series of counterparts – somewhere in the traditional worlds the West was savaging.
The present gathering will center on the poetics of the matter and will map, from the perspective of the editors, a discourse on poetics (really a range of such discourses) that has been a vital aspect of twentieth-century poetry and art – with precedents going back two centuries and more. The poetics in question, which we will speak of as an “ethnopoetics,” reemerged after World War II (with its rampant and murderous racism) and the dislocations of the European colonial system during the postwar period.  Whenever it has appeared—and some version of it may be as old as human consciousness itself – it has taken the form of what the anthropologist Stanley Diamond, in a recently renewed “critique of civilization,” calls “the search for the primitive” or, more precisely, the “attempt to define a primary human potential.” The search as such is by no means confined to the “modern” world (though our concern with it will be just there) but is felt as well, say, in the words of ancient Heraclites often cited by Charles Olson: “Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar.” And it is present too in the thought of those the West had cast as ultimate “primitives,” as when the Delaware Indians tell us in their Walum Olum: 

in the beginning of the world
all men had knowledge cheerfully
all had leisure
all thoughts were pleasant 

at that time all creatures were friends . . . 

The past is what it is – or was – but it is also something we discover and create through a desire to know what it is to be human, anywhere.
Some of the results of that search and its attendant yearnings are obvious by now – so much so that a principal defense against their power to transform us involves an attack on a primitivism debased by the attackers and abstracted thereby from its revolutionary potential.  Such a primitivism is not in any case the stance of this collection.  Nor is our interest directed backward toward a past viewed with feelings of decontextualized nostalgia.  It is our contention, in fact, that the most experimental and future-directed side of Romantic and modern poetry, both in the Western world and increasingly outside it, has been the most significantly connected with the attempt to define an ethnopoetics.
There is a politics in all of this, and an importance, clearly, beyond the work of poets and artists. The old “primitive” models in particular – of small and integrated, stateless and classless societies – reflect a concern over the last two centuries with new communalistic and anti-authoritarian forms of social life and with alternatives to the environmental disasters accompanying an increasingly abstract relation to what was once a living universe. Our belief in this regard is that a re-viewing of “primitive” ideas of the “sacred” represents an attempt – by poets and others – to preserve and enhance primary human values against a mindless mechanization that has run past any uses it may once have had.  (This, rather than the advocacy of some particular system, seems to us the contribution of the “primitive” to whatever world we may yet hope to bring about.) As a matter of history, we would place the model in question both in the surviving, still rapidly vanishing stateless cultures and in a long subterranean tradition of resistance to the twin authorities of state and organized religion.
What we’re involved with here is a complex redefinition of cultural and intellectual values: a new reading of the poetic past and present which Robert Duncan speaks of as “a symposium of the whole.” In such a new “totality,” he writes, “all the old excluded orders must be included. The female, the proletariat, the foreign; the animal and vegetative; the unconscious and the unknown; the criminal and failure – all that has been outcast and vagabond must return to be admitted in the creation of what we consider we are.”  If that or some variant thereof is taken as the larger picture, it can provide the context in which to see most clearly the searches and discoveries in what we call “the arts.”  In painting and sculpture, say, the results of those searches are by now so well known that there’s little surprise left in marking the change from Ruskin’s late nineteenth-century comment, “There is no art in the whole of Africa, Asia, and America,” to Picasso’s exclamation on his first sighting of an African sculpture, “It is more beautiful than the Venus de Milo.” Yet the obviousness of the change is itself deceptive. The “human” concerns demanded by the Dada poet Tristan Tzara—for an art that “lives first of all for the functions of dance, religion, music, and work”—remain largely submerged in the “aesthetic”; and it’s a long way too from Picasso’s classicizing admiration of the static art object to the reality of a tribal/oral “art in motion” (Robert Farris Thompson’s term) that brings all our scattered arts together.
This dream of a total art—and of a life made whole—has meant different things and been given different names throughout this century. “lntermedia” was a word for it in its 1960s manifestation – also “total theater” and “happenings” – behind which was the sense of what the nineteenth-century Wagnerian consciousness had called Gesamtkunstwerk and had placed – prefigured – at the imagined beginnings of the human enterprise. The difference in our own time was to smash that imperial and swollen mold, to shift the primary scene from Greece, say, to the barbaric or paleolithic past, or to the larger, often still existing tribal world, and to see in that world (however “outcast and vagabond” it had been made to look) a complexity of act and vision practiced by proto-poets/proto-artists who were true “technicians of the sacred.”  And along with this shift came the invention and revival of specific means: new materials and instruments (plastic and neon, film and tape) alongside old or foreign ones (stones, bones, and skin; drums, didjeridoos, and gamelans); ancient roles and modes of thought that had survived at the Western margins (sacred clowns and dancers, shamanistic ecstasies, old and new works of dream and chance); and a tilt toward ritual, not as “an obsessional concern with repetitive acts” but, as Victor Turner describes it, “an immense orchestration of genres in all available sensory codes: speech, music, singing; the presentation of elaborately worked objects, such as masks; wall-paintings, body-paintings; sculptured forms; complex, many-tiered shrines; costumes; dance forms with complex grammars and vocabularies of bodily movements, gestures, and facial expressions.”
The description, which fits both “them” and “us,” holds equally true in the language arts – as this book will attempt to show – though by the nature of language itself (and the need to translate ourselves in – always – partial forms) the complexity and the interplay of new and old haven’t been as clear there. Taken as a whole, then, the human species presents an extraordinary richness of verbal means – both of languages and poetries – closed to us until now by an unwillingness to think beyond the conventions and boundaries of Western literature. This “literature” as such goes back in its root meaning to an idea of writing—more narrowly and literally, the idea of alphabetic writing (littera, Lat. = letters) as developed in the West.  In poetry, the result has been to exclude or set apart those oral traditions that together account for the greatest human diversity, an exclusion often covered over by a glorification of the oral past. Thus Marshall McLuhan – defining the words “tribal” and “civilized” on the basis of alphabetic literacy alone – can write: “Tribal cultures like those of the Indian and Chinese [!] may be greatly superior to the Western cultures in the range and delicacy of their expressions and perception,” and in the same paragraph: “Tribal cultures cannot entertain the possibility of the individual or of the separate citizen.”
If the recovery of the oral is crucial to the present work, it goes hand in hand with a simultaneous expansion of the idea of writing and the text, wherever and whenever found. To summarize rapidly what we elsewhere present in extended form, the oral recovery involves a poetics deeply rooted in the powers of song and speech, breath and body, as brought forward across time by the living presence of poet-performers, with or without the existence of a visible/literal text. The range of such poetries is the range of human culture itself, and the forms they take (different for each culture) run from wordless songs and mantras to the intricacies (imagistic and symbolic) of multileveled oral narratives; from the stand-up performances of individual shamans and bards to the choreographies of massed dancers and singers, extended sometimes over protracted periods of time. From the side of visual and written language—which may, like the oral, be as old as the species itself—a fully human poetics would include all forms of what Jacques Derrida calls archécriture (= primal writing): pictographs and hieroglyphs, aboriginal forms of visual and concrete poetry, sand paintings and earth mappings, gestural and sign languages, counting systems and numerologies, divinational signs made by man or read (as a poetics of natural forms) in the tracks of animals or of stars through the night sky.
That practices like these correspond to experimental moves in our own time isn’t needed to justify them, but it indicates why we’re now able to see them and to begin to understand as well the ways they differ from our own work. Other areas in which such correspondences hold true may be more involved with “idea” than “structure,” though the distinction isn’t always easy to maintain. Traditional divination work, for example – the Ifa oracles of Africa, say, or the Chinese I Ching – rests on the recognition of a world revealed moment by moment through processes of chance and synchronicity (i.e., the interrelatedness of simultaneous events), and these processes in turn inform one major segment of our avant-garde.  Similarly, the widespread practice of exploring the “unknown” through the creation of new languages shows a strong sense of the virtual nature of reality (what Senghor speaks of as the traditional surreal) and the linguistic means to get it said. The idea of the surreal – at its most meaningful – also suggests the dream-works so central to other cultures and so long submerged in ours. And from these, or through them, it’s only a short step into a life lived in a state-of-myth (“reality at white heat,” Radin called it) and to the recovery of archetypes (as image and/or symbol) that infuse our own work at its most heated: the animal and trickster side of us; the goddess and the feminine; the sense of “earth as a religious form” and of a living, even human, universe; and the commitment to imaginal geographies and journeys that lead into our own lives and minds. These are as old as the human, maybe older, and they come back to us, transformed, not so much when we shut out the immediate world around us as when we choose to work within it.
The twentieth century – and with it the attendant modernisms that have characterized our poetry and art – is by now fading out. It has been a long haul and a sometimes real adventure, but the work is in no way complete and some of the major points have still to be hammered home. My own choice has been to write from the side of a modernism that sees itself as challenging limits and changing ways of speaking/thinking/doing that have too long robbed us of the freedom to be human to the full extent of our powers and yearnings. The struggle is immediate and the objects and attitudes to be destroyed or transformed appear on every side of us. But it isn’t a question of our having no sense of history or of the human past – no sense of possibilities besides the most apparent. The clincher, in fact, is the transformation beyond that, of our consciousness of the human in all times and places.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Anne Tardos: Nine Poems from “Nine”

[Anne Tardos, whose poetry & performances have enlightened us for several decades now, emerges in Nine (BlazeVox Books, forthcoming) as an innovator of new forms that serve as a vehicle for work that incorporates, like all great poetry, the fullest range of thoughts & experiences & makes them stick in mind & memory.  The form in question is called a “nine,” the reach & depth of which is described by Rachel Blau DuPlessis in the opening of a powerful introductory essay: “Anne Tardos has invented a form that is a mode of practice and thus a mode of being in language, expressed in this book with a patient excitement. It's called a ‘nine’: ‘Nine words per line and nine lines per stanza’ (Nine 1). The first words you see in this book demystify the practice and tell you the form. Like many procedural forms, the Nine is number based with things to count. It only remains to add that most of the lines are end-stopped, autonomous and poised in themselves, whether they are word salad, meditative messages, observations, part of a life-long list to oneself, thought-associations, or a-contextual propositions. Sometimes there are lines that follow from each other logically or narratively, associatively or in summary, but this is not a necessity. The regularity of the book Nine is modular: a series of boxes to open, a series of rooms to enter, a series of lines to account for. The ‘room’ of the stanza is also enclosing of the reader without, in most instances, becoming claustrophobic or oppressive. This is because the lines are each porous in relation to each other. Now you know almost everything except the mysteriously elegant and calming feeling that this book gives.”
               Additional excerpts from an earlier version of Nine were published here in Poems and Poetics on December 8, 2011.] 


Nine Words per line and nine lines per stanza
Pink fluffy underwater kangaroo fuzzy free manic rabbity thing.
Sense and nonsense similarly writer’s block clogged and unblocked.
Happiness nothing really blue so you can start living.
Laptop immersion fools your brain into thinking whatever needed.
Gazebo-tranquility-ragweed, condemned to live with the Self.
Find yourself totally isolated strict exile a common ploy.
Like you, I’m impatient as we become each other.
Bright green primary features evolving society—the age thing.


Sleep being slept, a bird has something to say.
Reality flip flop artistic failure extremely hard to explain.
Foggy zendo vigilance gendergap understanding the desire to live.
Levitating underbelly slime, dengue fever ankle deep, vilification zigzag.
I love you too dear—count your chickens carefully.
Echo chamber plant life, cellular reality, yellow rent abatement.
Quiet knucklehead comradery a thousand hopes subject to change.
Infinity appears in repeated mirror images perceived as reflection.
Zealous devotion to waxwork sex, because Sigmund said so.


Birthing velocity’s snapshot-like nature, pushed to the extreme.
It is Racine not Montaigne for most lovers’ discourse.
To suddenly fall upon the old dialectic of enlightenment.
And what is masturbation if not a homosexual act?
A role to play must have a visible function.
We are being categorized in the realm of tonality.
A counterintuitive yearning for the quiescence of pre-birth.
The way our twig’s bent is how we grow.
Empty thermos, unkissed nose tip, text rotation, marsupial nesting.


Kerchief ligament pirouette darkness jettison mother of invention boy-toy.
Zany foxy smoke alarm tremolo evacuation juniper ginger dimple.
Zinguer je je zinguer je, mich dich Villa nicht.
Every thought first thought in the visible universe, strange.
Zendo cushion run for it go. Long ago Labrador.
Swift recollection tired Daphne just like our overheated relationshit.
Something has changed I felt giddy I felt sick.
Since women. Forget it. No way. Barbaric and inhumane.
Learning a lot here: I’m wrong in being wrong.


Djibouti laptop polyrhythmic stevedore imagination for example people die.
Yeah yeah yeah listen to the music around you.
Plagiarize and cannibalize yourself by mining your own work.
Counter-sadistic anti-suffering vraiment triste faché becoming real.
Don’t think for a minute that you don’t exist.
First, get used to the sound of my voice.
Bob Perelman knows what Maisie knew about her parents.
Katy Lederer didn’t have money. She was a poet.
Mitch Highfill keeps a pet moth in his mind.

dirty love you

Dirty birthday, suntan-benevolence of impenetrable and incendiary nature.
Vibrations and particularized energy formations make some sense somehow.
Mind-independent reality: Haley’s Comet exists even if we don’t.
Hold your lover’s hand, and tomorrow will be yesterday.
When in ill thoughts again, stop everything but breathing.
Life is cool. Nothing need be done about it.
Jewish reconstructionism in Mamároneck, why just a minute ago.
When out of context, nothing will ever make sense.
Now I understand you because now I love you.


Mix of funk and freejazz Miles Davis musical response.
Lucretius saw the universe as something having a nature.
Bernstein: “Estrangement is our home ground”—Yukon bullfrog flu.
Barely arrived, it seems, and almost time to leave.
If narrowness were the price of intensity—not necessarily.
Adeena Karasick textacy and her rules of textual engagement.
Segue Zen coffee house Segue haunted lightning Segue offerings.
Place holders and temporary solutions require tolerance trust imagination.
Rachel Zolf Israeli-Palestinian Lesbian writing methods her Gematria.


Filling what is empty—it does keep getting better.
Dubious fanatical relationship-focus brilliant thinking interesting, I write.
Cleverly observed in retrospect via dark tunnels to New Jersey.
Honesty because it’s easier and honesty because it’s easier.
All of a sudden we can’t be far behind.
Together we can be keen, intelligent, well-meaning, and visible.
Like two shadows, never to be overtaken by anyone.
I quietly become agitated like a storm-tossed ship.
Now I’ll confess something to you: I don’t know.


How totally awful. How can anyone be so callous?
That cute smile and that glimmer in one’s eyes.
Bill Luoma uses the word “raw” as a noun.
Just look at all that raw covering his neurasthenia.
How his neurons respond to stimuli with exaggerated force.
“Let me listen to me, and not to them.”
Thinking of you brings me to my knees with longing.
Life could be seen as some kind of spasm.
Smitten in mid-spill the baby and the bathwater.