Never Apologize, Never Explain, Part II

Never Apologize Never Explain, Part II
Further Notes on Understanding the Poetry of Philip Whalen

By Pat Nolan 

“Philip was always writing, always reading, and whenever possible playing music.”
                        —Gary Snyder, Preface to The Collected
                                    Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan, 2006) 

[To resume, using Gary Snyder’s quote as the guiding principle for a discussion/rumination on the poet’s work, and his assertion that Whalen’s pastime, besides reading (addressed in the first installment of these notation), was writing and playing music.]

Philip Whalen’s work can be approached as the physical act of writing by hand and the importance of the art of calligraphy as a determinant as well as the progression that calls upon his constant and wide erudition to guide a course of inquiry or speculation that is personal and at the same time universal and establishes, ultimately, how he arrives at the end result, the composition of the poem much like that of a short film or musical étude.

The Pen Moving Is The Mind Moving

Aram Saroyan interviewed Philip Whalen at the San Francisco Zen Center in 1972 and asked, “Do you write in longhand?”  Whalen replied, “Yeah. . .”
Saroyan: And then you type it. You never use the typewriter first?
Whalen: Very, very seldom. I haven’t for years and years now.
Saroyan: Any particular reason? Or just convenience?
Whalen: Oh, I like the feel of doing it myself. I like the feeling of writing on paper, making the pen go, or pencil, or whatever. It’s fun.

Par la main, by the hand or by hand, the image, the meaning, five fingers, an opposable thumb and also the impression of that hand signifying more than one hand, the universal hand, the one that claps by itself, doing something, making something and subsequently, with care and hopefully craft, this alone, in the age of automation, is enough to elicit wonder when once it was a matter of fact.  The simplicity of attention to detail conceived under a timeless latitude makes a personal statement that the mass product cannot. Writing by hand adds a somatic component, a kind of carbon based authenticity. And writing consciously as a calligraphic skill requires a focused precision, a structured presence of necessary clarity, while dividing the attention between the physical act and cerebral progress.

Philip Whalen was taught Italic script by the classicist and master calligrapher Lloyd Reynolds when he was a student at Reed College. He then perfected his calligraphic practice into a wonderful eccentricity, abundantly evident in his notebooks and published works. In the preface to Highgrade (Coyote’s Journal, 1966), Whalen states “I write everything with a fountain pen.”  The publication of this collection of “doodles and poems” emphasized the importance Whalen and those who admired his work placed on the original pages of calligraphy accompanied by illustrations and sketches as integral to understanding his work.

The notebook as a repository for observations, opinions, ideas, lyric asides, and commentary is often overlooked as a tool in the composition of poetry, possibly the result of digital technology in the utilization of an alphabetical keyboard and typed/printed onto separate sheets of paper or stored as electronic data. The notebook, a pre-bound blank book, serves its function as an object and once laden with written material reifies its function as a unique product. The poet recognizes in the reified product of his notebook something of intrinsic value and re-appropriates it, transforming it into the transparent medium of his self-expression. The notebook also acts as a frame for formal exercises, sketches, schematics, cartoons, and doodles all emanating from the psyche of the poet through the medium of a pen.

In his essay, Little Mag Art, Keith Kumasen Abbott, a practiced calligrapher and artist himself, makes the point that Whalen’s “sudden, perplexing and yet inspired jumps into visionary rants, quiet epiphanies, personal conundrums, social truculence and . . . criticism” mirrored, in his art and journal pages, a multi-level approach, and dispensed with most of the rules of formal Western calligraphy.  Whalen, according to Abbott, “did not line the page so the words were in neat rows. He did not try for perfectly shaped letters in exquisitely spaced units. He did not choose an alphabet, like Italic, for the titles and then another alphabet, like Humanist Bookhand, for the text. If he ever felt the need for perfectly formed letters, it never seemed to last long. He felt free to enlarge or change letters as it suited his mood, the texts sometimes shifting in mid-line to different letterforms. Marginalia, scribbles, small caps, cross outs, pictures, exhortations, warnings, signs, loops, and dingbats were sprinkled throughout the pages. Because he was grounded in the historical backgrounds for Western letterforms, he felt free to mess around with the letters as he saw fit.”  

Abbott also draws on his own experience in the art of calligraphy on how penmanship might affect the content, and vice versa. “The influence of the actual act of calligraphy on the subject matter of his poems can be conjectured. Some poems seemed to have started or evolved out of letterform practice. When one practices Western calligraphy, stylistic aspects of the letterforms capture the attention of the writer. In the process of rehearsing some troublesome or challenging letter combinations, the calligrapher remembers words with the same combos: ammonia, monomania, etc. However, for [Whalen’s] calligraphic productions, the notion of attention is implicit, the shapeliness of the Mind, the shapeliness of the instant, that imbues Zen brush paintings with such an immediacy.”  Whalen’s calligraphy lines up with the Chinese practice of calligraphy, painting, and poetry known as “The Three Gentlemen.” In a  precise and perceptive unpacking of Whalen’s well known poem, Hymnus Ad Paternam Sinensis (Rhythm-a-ning, 2016), Abbott makes clear that “Whalen adapts and/or assimilates Chinese, Japanese and Buddhist artistic principles, such as brush practice, its aesthetics and epistemology. ‘This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is history . . .and you.’  This artistic credo mirrors Shodo, the way of the brush, where changing relationships of man, heaven and earth are experienced live in painting and calligraphy.”

Bruce Holsapple’s On Philip Whalen  (2003) follows up on this dynamic aspect of Whalen’s method. “Whalen’s focus on the mind in motion rather than the mind positioned or represented (by statements) is obviously of key importance, if only because the mind now develops as the poem develops; prior states of mind are not recreated but rather left behind, for the shift also requires disengagement.” The act of calligraphy concentrates on making language notations on the page, and how sense can be extended or compressed, much like a piece played on a piano, the pen being analogous to the piano in that an object becomes the agent of expression.

Anne Waldman speculated in an interview with Whalen from 1971, “. . .if you were directly writing in calligraphy. .it would also look great, like illuminated manuscripts. . . .”  To which Whalen answered “Well, you certainly pay attention to each word, but then I scribble a great deal, but sometimes a word. . .suggests a picture, or sometimes I just make a word with a capital letter ‘cause I feel like a capital letter. . . .”  It should be noted that Whalen scribbles are in a precise, highly legible hand.

The importance Whalen placed on calligraphy as the raw materials of his poetry is highlighted by examples of his work included in both On Bear’s Head and The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen. Writing with a calligraphic flare provides grounding as well as a point of entry and attenuates the dominant hemisphere. Notebook entries encourage brainstorming and random thoughts on a particular theme are noted or turned over, given their head, with no expectations as an improvisation that explores the nooks and crannies of possibility.

The image of Philip Whalen in the NET television segment showing him practicing calligraphy is that of a monk in a scriptorium.

“& wild with energy & power I am curled up in the grey reclining chair
Carefully writing one letter at a time”

(Delights of Winter at the Shore)

Whalen’s notebooks, held captive in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, might not rival those of DaVinci nor are they exactly the Book of Kells, but they are most certainly repositories of calligraphic gems, noodles, doodles, and nonsense revealing the depth of his playfulness. Not many have viewed them, but those who have come away full of their lightness. In these notebooks, the totality of the present is complete in its incompleteness and that totality is sustained by the very features that appear as distractions or lapses. What is eventually set in type on the page as a selection of Whalen’s poetry is a mere approximation of the original process.

The Wisdom Of Perception

Philip Whalen constructs his poetic narrative on the basis of his presence, not solely the camera eye but as an erudite CO2 emitting carbon based life form caught up in the ceaselessness of consciousness and what to make of it. What are the parameters of consciousness, if any, as it stutters against the fricative surface of self-reflection?

Paul Christensen in his excellent essay, To hunt for words under the stones, sees the function of Whalen’s notebooks in the method he uses to cull his poems. “Whalen’s objects are his own words, his phrasings, where the object is clarified in a human dimension, passed through the head. They are his equivalent of the dally rushes a director must scan with his editor; the task to ‘go on from there’ is the matter of pasting up, splicing, juxtaposing, in other words find the ideal path through which form glides and connects the momentary high pitches of Whalen’s concentration. Film and poetry are no better linked than in Whalen’s method—where some principle of maximal clarity of sight is then placed within a continuum of form—in film, the light piercing through the flickering shadows, and in Whalen, a Buddhist hedonism in love with the world as it is.”

Certainly Whalen knew what he was about in framing his sentience as a poem. He had absorbed the techniques of cinema as a way of pacing the speed of the poem, the lyric landscape, the turmoil of desire, the wry observation, all of which contribute to the personal narrative of space and time. Whalen himself reveals the secret in the Waldman interview: “. . . the only secret that I know about poetry that I tell all the students is that you have to have all these ideas or words written down on paper and then go on from there.”

Talking with Lee Bartlett in 1975, Whalen explained the use of his notebooks. “Many dreams come or many obsessive noises and trips come, and so I write them in a notebook. Later on, I look through the notebook and lift them out. Other times I hear people talking and simply record what they are saying for later use. Other times, I come immediately to some understanding, some statement. I start writing, and maybe it takes two or three pages; in any case the whole business is over within half a minute, and there it is. I don’t know if it’s inspiration or what—it’s just the function of the imagination and the poetical sensibility. It doesn’t have anything to do with skill.”

Deconstructing the poem into its original elements means returning to moments which do not have the form of the given poem when found but is the immediate property of the self. And that the poem itself, cut loose from its containing circumstance, should obtain an existence all its own, gain freedom and independence on its own account as the portentous power of the negative, the energy of thought, of pure self. “As for meaning,” Whalen says in All About Art & Life, “let it alone to mean itself.”

In the 1971 interview, Anne Waldman also inquired about how he put his poems together. I look through the notebooks I’ve been doing and sometimes. . . it seems like it’s all completed but then other times there are just stray lines and if I look through it and see that some stray line connects it reminds me of some other lines that are in another notebook and I look at that and it may all go together or it may not and the very longest poems that are in the Memoirs of an Interglacial Age or the real long poems that are in On Bear’s Head were done that way. It took years to do and to get the material all there to work from and then it was a matter of extensive cutting and so on.

The idea that cinematic technique is a useful tool for modern poets is also supported in Holsapple’s essay. “The poet has become a filmmaker as he is the documentarian, cinematographer, director, screen writer, and editor splicing a free form narrative of associations in which the poem may make the use of a number of themes woven throughout the composition. Whalen could now allow many textual features—shifts in perspective, contingencies (inside and outside the text), unorthodox sequencing and other spatial effects (images juxtaposed, snippets of speech, rhetorical gestures)—to operate as part of the overall development of the poem.” Holsapple also addresses Whalen’s use of takes in delimiting sections of the poems as “a sense of recognition of change or acceptance of it happening in the physical world and in the ego running concurrently. This use of “takes” (and the mind in movement) is I think directly related to voice.”

A “take” is also a cinematic term and is used in recording studios as well. Whalen does what film editors do, he finds relationships between the takes (moments of insight, perceptual epiphanies, expressions of indignation and delight, impressions quotidian and cosmic, complaints and critiques, real or imagined monologues and dialogues) he has collected (recorded) and splices them together into a “nerve movie.” A poem no longer has to be a single continuous pan shot over the cliff (the state of modern poetry). William Carlos Williams once commented on movie trailers, stating that they were often more compelling than the feature itself, and that the fast cut method could be adapted to the composition of the poem. Whalen got from Williams and Pound an understanding that the poem wasn’t a syllogism, that it was a process of development, as far as you wanted to take it. Bernardo Bertolucci, the Italian director, talked about the importance of finding a film editor who understood the rhythm of the cutting as if it were a musical composition which includes periods of high drama, subtle emotion, mundane detail, etc. Whalen intuitively knew this, and it is evident in the orchestral structure of his longer works, especially Minor Moralia, Scenes From Life At The Capital, and Birthday Poem.

Whalen steps in and out of a Heraclitean stream in recording/filming his mental states. By sampling the flow, he recapitulates the original moments and orders them in a deftly cut sequence. The transition that happens at the end (quote-unquote) of the poem is called “inhabiting the poem,” the realization that a spiritual birth is occurring. The mistake of la poésie moderne is the notion that the poem is an object. As Whalen amply illustrates, a poem can be an organic construct that will breathe a life of its own.

Cosmic Background Radiation

Philip Whalen’s generation was probably the first to be totally affected by popular radio, the 20’s and 30’s Golden Age which straddled the piano parlor age. And perhaps his generation was the last to completely embrace self-entertainment in the form of after-dinner piano plinking, sing-alongs, coffee concertos. A special knowledge is necessary to play a musical instrument. Whole neuronal arrays are enlisted to facilitate the eye-hand coordination in reading music and playing the piano. Anyone who was anyone back then could manage the ivories. Sheet music publishers made fortunes. Radio killed that. Subsequent generations let the radio play the music for them.

Introduced to music composition by a friend, Stanworth Beckler, in the mid 40’s, Whalen learned and taught himself the fundamentals. He was already familiar with the keyboard and as he explained to Anne Waldman, “I could read music. . .but [Beckler]showed me and with his help I learned a great deal more about playing the piano and about counterpoint and harmony and also reading orchestral scores. . . .and I still when I can get at one, like to play the piano.” Whalen was always cheered by his musical interludes and found them a great resource “because reading scores. . .gave me some notion about form. . .I do have some inkling of what artistical form, or what form in time is, which is what music actually does. There’s a form that happens in time, and this is something that happens in poetry, at a faster or slower speed.”

Picking out harmonies and composing a work, a composite, stepping in and out of a stream of consciousness, aspects of which are recorded on the pages of a notebook, the synchronicity of serendipitous cognition. Individual concerns provide the thread over a span of time traced to its resolution but never its conclusion as kinetic musical energy.

It would not be too farfetched to consider Whalen’s poems analogous to musical compositions. Keith Kumasen Abbott had access to Whalen’s notebooks at the Bancroft Library and found this relevant passage: “…the biggest kicks in music is Rhythmic Invention; the tune is the easy part, etc. which, I hope, is what my poetry is, if anybody had ears to hear, feet to tap. Chaucer, Skelton, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Shelley, Blake, Hopkins, Yeats” (Journal entry,11:IX:67). In Rhythm-a-ning Abbott goes on to state: “One of Whalen’s favorite musicians, Thelonious Monk, re-arranged church, big band, Tin Pan Alley and Harlem stride music for his own artistic ends, Whalen felt free to adapt and restructure his poetic models. Whalen’s originality, humor and musical ability allowed him to shadow, parody or mime previous metrical conventions as he places them in new frames and combos.”  In comparing the similarities of invention between the jazz musician and the poet, Abbott quotes Martin Williams from Leslie Gourse’s Straight, No Chaser, 1997: “on ‘Five Spot Blues’ . . . an archaic triplet figure is elaborated within a traditional framework. It is perhaps a measure of Monk’s talent that he is willing to undertake something so totally unpretentious. And yet in his solos, he stretches out that little triplet motif, then abruptly condenses it into half the space it is supposed to occupy, embellishes it until it is almost lost, then rediscovers it and restores its unapologetic simplicity. Almost anyone with an ear for melody and rhythm could follow him exactly, I think, yet in its small way ‘Five Spot Blues’ is also a measure of his sense of order, of his rhythmic virtuosity, his originality, and his greatness.” 

Abbott then points to the parallel in Whalen’s poetry. Whalen’s rhythmic experimentations are evident in his manipulations of accent and tone via shifts in diction, syntax and grammar, his unique morphing of meter for syncopation inside regular measures, and his use of the line lengths, enjambment and spacing to speed or retard time.” As Whalen himself said in the Waldman interview, “even in a Bach Invention or in the Well-Tempered Clavier you get this, or I eventually got around to where I was feeling these shapes or forms arranged and moving in certain ways and at the same time making a composition. . .” The arrangement of shapes and forms of written sections in post logical juxtaposition are what go into the making of a Whalen composition. “These forms in time,” Abbott reiterates, “include counterpoint, harmony, syncopation and improvisational rhythmic techniques. In his writing he couples those skills with low to high diction, Buddhist koans, American folk sayings and/or popular songs, Tin Pan Alley burlesques and/or vaudeville routines.” 

All Together Now 

In the process of understanding Philip Whalen’s poetry the reader should be prepared for the fact that a promising premise may be of less significance than where the poem takes them and that they should be open to ending up in unanticipated places whether the poem produces satisfaction or desire, discomfort or horror.

Kenneth Rexroth, in a selection of essays, With Eye and Ear (1970), wrote that Whalen “is a greatly learned man, more in the mainstream of international avant-garde literature. . .a man of profound insights and the most delicate discriminations. It all seems so effortless, you never notice it until it has stolen up and captivated you, the highly wrought music of his verse. It all sounds so casual and conversational, . . .”  A literary taxonomy of Philip Whalen might read Americano, Pacific Rim, Neo-Romantic, Buddhist, Autodidact, Demotic, Poet.

Bruce Holsapple’s essay, On Philip Whalen, published online as a pdf file by La Alameda Press, although shored up with the requisite scholarly lumber and academic framing, delivers an appropriately clear-cut look at how Whalen’s poetry works. “Whalen writes in a demotic style, one based on speech, in the tradition of Whitman and Williams. The tone is typically intimate, casual and humorous. He considers himself a lyric poet which is to say his perceptions and thought processes are used as part of the poem’s content. Whalen’s poems involve a single speaker who expresses states of mind and processes of perception, thought, and feeling. In his use of first person, Whalen follows the common practice of allowing the speaker to be understood as the author and the poem to be understood as an act of speech. [He] has a penchant for vernacular phrasing.”

Some of Whalen’s poems are random, going with the flow, an improvisation, and other times it is the profound inspiration of an auteur, and often it is a little bit of both. As Holsapple points out, Whalen’s hands-off technique allows the poem to develop on its own, to be “free” verse, or in the Western parlance, “free range” verse, when he writes “when the poems became less representative of a subject establishing a stance or truth, there [is] less need for thematic or macroscopic control.”

If the poems do not have consistent topical themes and are merely allowed to mean themselves, what is their function? “Poems are made for the pleasure of making them,” Whalen states in the introduction to Decompressions, the 1978 selected poems from Donald Allen’s Grey Fox Press, “not for the purpose of being merely ‘understood’ by literary scholars and blue stockings who edify themselves with the ‘study’ of poetry.”  Whalen here hits upon corporate poetry’s dirty little secret: poems don’t have to be about anything but themselves. “The poem does not exist on account of its meaning,” Whalen continues, “It takes on an apparent course, now, from start to finish, but it wasn’t composed to fit a plan.” Whalen’s contention takes the poem back to its original oral roots as a non-codified utterance. His demotic turn brings the poem back to its originality as speech in its address to itself and to others on the same cosmic wavelength. “No longer organized by topical concerns,” Holsapple observes, Whalen’s poems “now become manifestations of mind, with the movement of the mind understood as a metaphysical event. The poem is deliberately disparate at a thematic level, but unified at an emotional level.”

Whalen’s freeform mental juggling of observations, threads, suppositions is kept suspended in a kinetic chain of nonrelated events so that when the action ends an intuitive (language-based) appreciation of what has transpired occurs, similar to the lights going up in a movie theater and walking outside with scenes and images recalled to consciousness, savoring the familiar resonant ones, trying to reconcile others in a questioning of the experience. “This leaping about is probably related to what Whalen termed as ‘following’ the poem,” Holsapple concludes, “for he is no longer constrained by either tone or perspective.” Whalen’s eschewal of these restraints “widens both the range of his material and the poem’s emotional domain.”

As a conscious artist, Whalen manipulates the shapes and tenor of the language material in a spontaneous continuity whose resolution is in the consensus of its parts. There is no doubt that Philip Whalen is a true original in the American mold and ranks with Dickinson and Whitman in being what Williams termed “true products.”  The American voice is continually being paved over by the cultural leveling of an undereducated bourgeois mentality in the thrall of the imperial glot. The true poet is always an outlier.

According to Whalen, exuberance, joy, ecstasy, satori are anti-social feelings. “When expressed in modes other than artistic ones, something is likely to get broken, someone might get hurt, quite accidentally.”  Channeling ecstatic energy into writing a poem is one way of capturing it. But not in the ebullient “I think I shall write a poem today” way. As Whalen puts it, the poem precedes the thinking of its composition. The poem is going to “think itself,” he says, “in addition to ripping the poet out of his head—think light wave/particle/bundles being slowly emitted in a pattern from the surface of somebody’s face and travelling very slowly through space to mingle with the chemicals of a photographic film and slowly change them so that they in their turn remember the pattern and can reproduce it whenever called upon.  Those wave/ particle/ bundles and their combination are words for a poet and his mind is at once their source and the pattern of their intensities.”

Whalen’s influence is considerable if not always acknowledged. Even though Allen Ginsberg did not “get” what Whalen was doing, and Charles Olson called him “a great big vegetable”, there were many young writers of subsequent generations who appreciated his approach as something new and unique in his synthesis of Williams, Pound, and Asian prosody, and to a certain extent emulated, adapted, and found kindred use for his methods. Just a few need to be mentioned: Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, Anselm Hollo, Bill Berkson, Keith Kumasen Abbott, and Ted Berrigan. Alice Notley deserves special mention as her poetry pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a poem with an originality and inventiveness that parallels Whalen’s.

In Donald Allen’s The Poetics of the New American Poetry, Whalen unapologetically lays out the impossibility and delight of writing poetry. “It is impossible to describe how poems begin. Some are imagined immediately, are ‘heard’ quite as if I were hearing a real voice speaking the words. Sometimes I ‘hear’ a poem in this way and it is a complete statement, a complete verbal or literary entity. Sometimes the same imagination provides me with single lines or with a cluster of lines which is obviously incomplete. I write them down and put them away. Maybe a few hours later I’ll ‘receive’ more lines. Perhaps they won’t arrive until weeks and months go by. Some of my long poems took years to come, and then it took a few days or weeks in which to revise and fit all their pieces together. Some poems arrive as dreams. Others begin from memories. Some start out in the middle of a conversation I’m involved in or words that I overhear other people speaking. An imagination of the life of some historical person may occur to me. . . . A landscape, a cat, a relative, a friend, a letter, walking, the unexpected receipt of a new poetry magazine full of work by new young writers, shopping for vegetables, making love, looking at pictures, taking dope, sitting still and looking at whatever is happening in front of me. . .all this is how to write, all this is where poems are to be found.”  The truth of the matter being self-evident, no explanation is necessary. Whalen adds, “Writing them is a delight.”


Further Reading

The Collected Poems Of Philip Whalen, (Michael Rothenberg, ed.) Wesleyan University Press, 2007, is the definitive scholar’s edition. The poems are arranged chronologically, and the volume includes a number of informative indices among them Whalen’s introductions to various volumes of his poetry in which he gives the clearest definition of his methods and esthetic.

Off The Wall, Interviews with Philip Whalen (Donald Allan, ed.) The Four Seasons, 1978, where the Anne Waldman, Lee Bartlett,  and Aram Saroyan interview material can be found.

Anything and everything by Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, Anselm Hollo, Bill Berkson, , Keith Kumasen Abbott, Alice Notley, and Ted Berrigan.


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volumes I & II, 1969-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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The Poet As Cynic

The Poet As Cynic

Carl Wendt, poet and literary factotum, still adjusting to being
awarded the megabucks Dorian Pillsbury Prize in Poetry, finds himself
hitchhiking along a deserted Northern California backroad highway.

Excerpt from Ode To Sunset
A Year In The Life Of American Genius
A fiction by Pat Nolan

 Coming out of his thoughts he found himself walking to the west end of the small one-horse town toward a tall conifer offering shade on the shoulder of the road. As Diogenes the dog once said, “I have come to debase the coinage.” Now I’m leaving, he added with a measure of self-satisfaction. He was a poetry curmudgeon, like Rexroth, but without the Wobbly cachet. He’d always thought of himself as different, eccentric perhaps, superior, some would say, certainly apart from the rest, an exile from the herd. And that bit of askew provided an off-kilter balance that kept him unique.

“What does it matter beyond gilding the breath for its own sake?” Was he to consider himself a cynic like old Dio Dog? Well, for one thing, he was pretty blasé and indifferent, like a stray, living the public life, making no bones about his lust, on the loose, running free. A dog is shameless, and he was as shameless as an Irishman, or setter. In fact he was one of a cult of the shameless, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it, and which included most poets whether they admitted to it or not. And as a cynical cur he had an infallible olfactory sense to sniff out what was bullshit and what was not when it came to the tenets of poetry. Like the mutt that he was, he was loyal to his friends and presented a lip curled snarl to those egotistical poetry pimps who would dare tread on his turf with their outdated presumptions.

On the other hand, he tried to maintain an easygoing temperament. That was his goal at least. To be thankful for a clarity of mind that penetrated the smokescreen of mindless ignorance, folly, and conceit, his own and that of others, particularly that of others. And his good nature came from living in accord with a common sense that allowed him to accentuate the positive while sidestepping the dog pile of the negative in the furtherance of his day-to-day survival. He had a rein on his arrogance most of the time because he knew that it led to false judgments which in turn led to negative emotions, unnatural desires of the fame and fortune variety. All the same he had a killer instinct for the emotional jugular. He walked the line knowing that his good nature depended on a single minded self-sufficiency, the mental composure of a Zen monk, a joyful participation in the sorrows of the world, that allowed him to glean nuggets of wisdom from the most mundane and insignificant moments of existence, what Basho had called the spirit of karumi.

For his good nature to flourish he knew he had to eschew such valueless concepts as wealth, fame, power. How then could he explain the wad in his wallet, his bank account, his sudden rise in visibility? He’d been nominated for The Holbrooke Foundation Excellence in Literature Prize, otherwise known as the HELP, and been assured that he was a shoo-in. He was being sucked into the mainstream by the attention of others, tagged for envy and spite, but also appreciated as a discovery much as the petrified bones of a fossil might be. His shameless impudence, his ridicule of social norms, of literary conventions, his violating the rules of conduct and social interaction taken for granted as civilized behavior were now being lauded as visionary and/or quaint.

He’d taken pride in his robust no-frills lifestyle that required only the bare necessities for existence, a liberty unshackled from any need to conform to convention. And it was essential that he apply himself to staying unfettered by dint of daily practice much as Buddhists put into practice the tenets of their beliefs, not only in exercising judgments and forming mental impressions, but also by keeping physically fit with his meditative constitutionals which also served to get him from one place to another.

As D Dog used to say, “There are two kinds of exercise, that of the mind and that of the body.”  The healthy body creates in the mind split second intuitions by virtue of its vigor but the one is imperfect without the other since a healthy body and clarity of intellect depend equally on both. Of course he had strayed, often willfully, from many of these precepts yet had kept them in mind like a cracked and faded photo in the folds of a wallet. And it was not like he was a recluse or anything. He had lived in the full glare of the public’s gaze, indifferent in the face of criticism at his unconventional poetics. And certainly not cowed by the proscriptions of political correctness, he had the right to be outspoken, contrary, and irascible, vain and intractable. He considered himself, above all, a citizen of the cosmos, elbowing the stars and gods alike. And perhaps because of this heady company, he was always more than ready to point out the fallacies and pretensions at the root of everyday rote, and to question every aspect of interaction with the world as a clear path to integrity and purity of existence.

In light of events over the past six months, his was an ironic reversal of fortune. For starters he wasn’t in all that good of a shape, physically. Not since the night of what he self-referenced as the “Halloween Bash.”  The time in the hospital, the months spent recuperating after the surgery, had taken a toll on his stamina. He still got around but less easily with his game leg, and his jaunts around the city required careful consideration and the hustling of rides from friends. It had slowed him down and subsequently he slowed down.

Then there was the money. The award had only succeeded in making his life more complicated. Suddenly he was back on the debt radar and being hounded by collection agencies over his unpaid student loan, back taxes, and medical expenses. Not to mention those of his acquaintances who suddenly and conveniently remembered a loan they had made some years before and couldn’t remember if he had ever paid them back. Wasn’t there a statute of limitations on that kind of thing? Not that it mattered. He was going to eat up that money like a termite with a sweet tooth through sugar pine.

In his vacillating self-concealment he was feeling the regret that comes with questionable success. What he had lost with this sudden celebrity was his shadow. He had become transparent so that light passed right through him, an invisible man practicing an invisible art. At one time he had been content with being a famous nobody or, better yet, nobody famous. Behind his cynical dog-like sneer he tried to maintain a core of innocence that allowed him to still write poetry. Yet the corrosive effect of fame on the innocents was well documented. Kerouac was a prime example, hounded and shamed for being just that, a pure product of America, harassed for the very innocence he proclaimed. “Fame makes you stop writing,” Jack lamented. He was also reminded of Michel Brazon’s story of hanging out with Bryce Dunnigan on the terrace at Enrico’s one night. Someone at the table was annoying the celebrated Confederate author of Fishing With Dynamite with suggestions as to how he could further boost his national appeal, such as making appearances on late night talk shows. All of which sounded exactly like something the predictably inappropriate Brazon would do. As Michel told it, Dunnigan fished a hundred dollar bill from his wallet and held it up, saying something like “this is what I think of fame,” and set it aflame with the centerpiece candle. When he heard the news that Dunnigan had put a bullet through his head, the thought had crossed his mind: much more effective than burning a C note.

“You know that there will always be an awful lot of good poets,” Dick Granahan once told him. “Some no one will ever hear of, and that’s what kills them. Some, on the heels of luck, are renowned from the first word that dribbles from their pens, and that’s what kills them. Everyone else is just twisting in the wind of slow death oblivion. Great artists are always offing themselves because it doesn’t matter that they’re great, they still can’t live with themselves.”

That he knew, but it bore repeating. Fame, like shit and death, happens. Then the times and fashion change and step right over you as if your entire life were nothing more than a crack in the sidewalk, a lump of detritus, a flash in the pan.


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.


New To the Society’s Shelves
Sandy Berrigan, Listen To The Wind, privately published, 2019
Eric Johnson, This, Farflungland Editions, Iota Press, 2020
Mark Young, The Right Foot Of The Giant, Bumper Books, 1999
Jack Kerouac, Some Of The Dharma, Viking, 1997
Paul Fericano, Things That Go Trump In The Night,
Little City Press, 2019
John C. Thirlwall (editor),The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams, McDowell Obolensky, 1957
Lee Perron, Kenneth Rexroth, A Bibliographic Checklist, Sun Moon Bear Editions, 2009
Ihara Saikaku, The Life of an Amorous Woman (Ivan Morris, trans.), New Directions, 1963
Richard Martin, In Defense of the MFA and Exotic (Vacationland) Writing Workshops, Fell Swoop #122

 

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Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part III

 

“Socialization of culture devalues it as a form of social values which are then held to a standard and used as an admission price for exclusionary purposes.”

                                —Hannah Arendt

Nothing Metaphysical

When did poets become teachers/educators?  And specifically of poetry.  That’s an important question because the answer might provide a clue in determining the course of Anglo American poetry (i.e., poetry in American English henceforth referred to as Americano). What are they teaching, anyway?  From all indication it appears to be a soulless freeze dried hybrid academic product.  And just what is poetics?  Aristotle’s seminal treatise on the subject has been irretrievably lost with the exception of a section on tragedy, a word that originally meant “goat song” or perhaps more properly “kid bleat” (a love song?).  Poetics seems to imply that there is some kind of gauge, a metric or system by which poetry can be proved or verified and when applied will produce a poem or poems, as if it were a science experiment.  There is no science to poetry although there may be poetry in science.  In regard to scansion, rhyme, or technique, that’s merely an application of style.  Frank O’Hara, in his Personism “manifesto”, puts it succinctly: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.”

Some of the most significant poets of the Americano tradition are not, for the most part, teachers.  In fact, the Americano canon is a menagerie, a roadside yard sale, consisting of a self-employed self-promoting gallant, a Boston orphan, an epileptic closet cynic, an expat art collector, an Idaho huckster, a High Church bank clerk, a Jersey sticks baby doc, a shabby Atlantic aristocrat, an insurance company executive, a radical Wobblie autodidact, a Rock River island housewife, a museum curator, a Zen monk, a bookstore owner, an irascible postal worker, a New England Irish tough, and a California borderlands refugee among others of that ilk. Some of the more contemporary of these poets may have taught workshops or held residencies or brief untenured positions in universities or colleges more in recognition of their stature than their teaching expertise.  None are, per se, professional teachers of poetry.

That is not an education. It’s an initiation. Or a Ponzi scheme. As Tom McGuane was heard to quip “I’ve done some of bad things in my day, but teach creative writing is not one of them.”

One of the gravest threats to US literature is the misguided English major/ teacher/professor/poet cum poetry workshop professional cum arts bureaucrat whose pedagogic aim is to gentrify and curate the genuine. As poetry coaches, they are intent on making the poet socially acceptable.  Their familiarity with poetry outside the classroom and echo chamber of their own Uroborean self-reference is limited to cliques and mutual admiration social networks.  Nor are they truly conversant with the world of fully engaged independent creative individuals who do not fit into off-the-shelf categories of what constitutes poetry and poets.  The educrat in poet’s trappings contributes to the gentrification (as well as commodification, professionalizing, and politicization) of poetry through the ubiquitous workshop culture (pen and ink therapy), the socio-political determined installation of poets as laureates (elevation of the banal), and the inviolable poets in the schools programs (learn to hate poetry) by deconstructing the poetic imagination so that it might be replicated in assembly line fashion. Poetry can be learned, but can it be taught?

How It All Began

In the post war era, educational institutions, from elite universities to lowly Ag colleges, realized that the US Government funded GI Bill represented a steady source of revenue.  One of the biggest sticking points was curriculum, particularly in the humanities.  Students who had been in the military were mostly savvier and demanding of the courses offered than the pampered privileged youngsters who had matriculated directly from high school to college level learning. As a result administrators began designing courses that were more inclusive and tailored to students of a varied cultural and economic class with the aim of keeping them in school for the full length of their government funded allotment. One of those areas was liberal arts, literature in particular as in the case of creative writing programs and degrees—this policy was ramped up considerably post-Vietnam to accommodate a third generation of veterans.  The universities and colleges capitalized on the success of celebrity writers retreats such as Squaw Valley with the idea that a lot more people could be dunned out of their cash (tuition) by offering a loosely structured creative writing program that essentially stroked the enrollees’ egos.  Genius. That is not an education. It’s an initiation. Or a Ponzi scheme. As Tom McGuane was heard to quip “I’ve done some of bad things in my day, but teach creative writing is not one of them.”

And that’s fine as far as it goes because most veterans are worldly wise enough to recognize bullshit when they hear it.  Eventually, once that vein was played out, the cash thirsty institutions began recruiting naive undergrads and grads into their much touted “prize winning” writing programs in the guise of offering a professional future.  Instead, perhaps as an unintended consequence, they fostered the professor-centric cult of undigested regurgitated credentialed superficiality. Why is it not common knowledge that you do not need a degree or any formal schooling whatsoever to be a poet? The caveat being once you self-nominate prepare to spend the rest of your life proving it to yourself.  Of course if you are a middle class poseur and you’re at a cocktail party or similar social mingling (less likely now) and you mention that you’re a poet, you might have to claim credentials to legitimize yourself as an educrat, a bubblegum Brahmin.  An MFA (aka Middle-class Fashion Accessory) in Creative Writing usually does the trick, a class pass for those who have yet to leave the confines of the institution.  It’s the middle-class comfort zone, professional to professional.

Many tricks of the trade are taught but hardly any emphasis is put on reading diversely in literature and other disciplines. On the other hand, it is likely workshop participants would view suggestions to read broadly and deeply as homework assignments.

What MFA writing programs produce is normal unthreatening psychobabble group think politically correct (a very slippery concept) party line monotony, the drone that controls the psyche, the consumerist lockstep mind meld that leads over the cliff. MFA poetry program Ponzi schemes are for those who can’t read or read with any discernment or are too locked into their view of themselves that they can’t make sense of anyone else. There are no jobs for poets as poets because being a poet is a job in itself.  That part is never mentioned.  Postgrad candidates are led to believe that writing poetry is an academic pursuit.  As Franz Wright once so vociferously stated, “MFA programs have turned poetry into an occupation, and a joke [and] have lowered the bar so far down anyone can trip over it and get a degree & consider themselves A MASTER OF THE ART OF POETRY.  [R]eal talent means nothing now—a business sense and niceness is all [that is required]. . .we now have more writers than readers of poetry—we have ACADEMIC POETS as THE GREAT ASPIRATION OF 21 YEAR OLD KNOW-NOTHINGS, the very enslavement real writers have been fleeing forever. . . .”  Writing programs administer the poetry dole and those fortunate enough to be employed as poets are essentially on welfare.  The subsequent proliferation of poetry pedagogues with degrees creates economic anxiety since there are hardly enough placements to accommodate even a small percentage seeking employment as poets. One of the few recourses to recouping what was invested in a creative writing degree (other than standing in line for politically apportioned fellowships such a Guggenheim, a MacArthur “genius” grant, or an NEA handout) is to replicate the process and teach others that there is perhaps economic and social value in being a poet.  “Not to belabor the point,” as Tom. Disch maintains, “The amount of money any writer earns is directly proportional to the number of readers who want to read his/her work and will buy the books.  Everything else is patronage, whether it takes the form of free vacations, university tenure at writing workshops, or Guggenheim or MacArthur awards.  There is nothing inherently wrong with patronage.  Patronage funded. . .some large percentage of all English poetry.  Now that the system has become bureaucratized, it isn’t even necessary for the poet to produce a servile dedication page; a mere acknowledgement will do.”   The carrot to this shtick is the assurance that once published alongside the utter tripe in the New Yorker or in Poetry Magazine (always a joke among the cognoscenti and now a joke with money) or in the company of the photogenic phenotypes of APR one has made their poetry bones.  As well there is the understanding that to be successful as a professional poet requires networking with likeminded professionals who meet at conferences and literary fests and share job opportunities or attend seminars on how to create those job opportunities.  There are associations to join, online chat groups, and even guilds, a rather quaint concept in this 21st century, but then poetry has always had that appeal of the antique—nostalgia for the quaint encourages the valorization of conventional modes of thought and beliefs. Thus credentialed and connected legions of earnest poetry drones flood the market with their undereducated outdated opinions. And as all those seminars had stressed, in the crowded job market of liberal arts the creation of a socially identifiable reputation delivering workshops and seminars, publishing (or self-publishing), public appearances, and social media is the path to garnering attention and making a name.  Hope is held out for a tenured position, but barring winning that lottery, there’s always teaching poetry workshops.

Can Poetry Be Taught?

Poetry workshops are a mire of compromise. The instructor, no matter how altruistic or well intentioned, faces a common conundrum in treading carefully through the minefield of expectations in offering constructive criticism while not offending the neophyte’s fragile ego.  The obvious solution is to stick to the neutral fare of technique, exercises in arcane poetic forms, writing drills so rudimentary as to be insulting, and inane prompts. Flash fiction is a development of a workshop exercise. Not to mention the misappropriated haiku and other poorly understood Japanese verse forms. It could just as well be paint-by-numbers. Most workshop instructors know better than to offer a critique beyond technique. Participants who have succeeded in following the rules are rewarded with appropriately ambiguous literary appraisals. And see you next week. Sign up for the next session. Many tricks of the trade are taught but hardly any emphasis is put on reading diversely in literature and other disciplines. On the other hand, it is likely workshop participants would view suggestions to read broadly and deeply as homework assignments. There is also the understanding that workshop attendees (knowingly or unknowingly) are there largely for the self-affirmation and positive feedback provided by therapeutic encounters. Technique, to reiterate, is all about making sure your pants fit tight and if that’s a good look for you. It defines you in the social literary hierarchy. Not to imply that from such creatively ambiguous terrain there won’t arise a few, bold and bright eyed, who will defy the conventions of group think. “The one good thing about poetry workshops,” Ted Berrigan once said, “is that you might meet someone who dislikes workshops as much as you do.”

The best workshops are the works of other writers, classical or contemporary, preferably both, given deep and dogged consideration.

What is missing perhaps is the understanding that it is up to the poet to self-educate. Aldous Huxley asserted that to be a poet one must know everything. And by “everything” the assumption is that he meant everything, not just poetry but philosophy, science, both physical and social, mythology/history/religion, the arts, and anything else that might prompt curiosity and lead to poetic discovery.  To believe a course of study or workshop techniques or theoretic conjectures learned under tutelage are sufficient in providing the requisite education is mistaken.  While what might have been provided as an education has met a standard of excellence, at best it is a signpost that indicates a steep trail ahead with the exhortation “Start Reading!”

The accrual of reading always pays dividends.  And thrills.  Parallel processing occurs during fluent reading.  There’s the automaticity of reading and the superimposed cognition that reading triggers which is the sum of all experience and somewhat akin to flying.  In a recent article on deep literacy published in the journal National Interest, Adam Garfinkle points out “The deep-reading brain excels at making connections among analogical, inferential, and empathetic modes of reasoning, and knows how to associate them all with accumulated background knowledge.” Reading inspires the formulation of concepts, the recognition of associative relationships, and presents the reader with complex intellectual assemblages as holographic abstractions requiring a certain literate and mental agility to comprehend. “If you do not deep read, you will not cultivate a capacity to think, imagine, and create,” says Garfinkle. As well, the more you read the more widely you will read, acquiring vocabularies and the concepts associated with varied and challenging disciplines beyond the ken of literature.  This is the kind of work involved in getting to know Huxley’s everything.

Reading is nothing without writing as writing is obviously nothing without a reader. The best workshops are the works of other writers, classical or contemporary, preferably both, given deep and dogged consideration. It involves questioning and critique (emotionally intellectually), consulting the opinions of others (reviews critical essays), plumbing the differences and how they might be applicable to creating a cogent poem, yet at the same time remaining skeptical and unconvinced of all conclusions. This practice allows for a continual tilling and reseeding of the intellect through deep reading within or outside of the discipline.  If that sounds like the recipe for autodidactism, it is. But it’s not really as bad as it sounds even if Bourdieu contends that autodidactism is illegal (a kind of trespassing on the reserve of the academic), essentially an unlicensed practice.  He also claims that the autodidact is a danger to society.  An outlaw.  That sounds remarkably close to Baudelaire’s definition of poet.

The Local Laureate

In some cultures the title of Poet Laureate was once conferred upon a poet as recognition of a lifetime of accomplishment in the literary arts not as a seal of approval from the Chamber of Commerce or some other provincial body of self-promoting do-gooders.  Often laureates held a position in the royal court, called upon to commemorate with praise song notable ancestors or victories in battle.  Once appointed, poet laureates retained the title for the rest of their days.  Depending on the age of the poet designated at the time of the honor, the term of office could last a few years or a few decades.  The nomination eventually became a national honor, designed to draw attention to the excellence of its literary acumen.  Years might pass after the death of a reigning laureate before another candidate was put forward such was the seriousness and gravity of the position.  In the US, the position is Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress and the term is for one year.  As Poet Laureate, Robert Frost read a poem at Kennedy’s Inauguration.  Maya Angelou at Clinton’s.  Cassandra should have spoken at Trump’s.

To echo Rexroth, children don’t need or necessarily want poetry. They want real world experience, driving lessons and sex education.

However now it seems that every municipality or county jurisdiction has its own local laureate and they are cycled through as regularly as an elected office.  County Boards of Supervisors rubber stamp a proclamation, or the mayor announces the appointment in a public session.  The sponsors of the candidate are usually associations of allied interests in promoting the arts as a mark of local culture achievement.  Those put forward represent a median of accomplishment, not dragon breath arrogants or flamboyant exhibitionists or even renowned practitioners, but genteel wordsmiths whose goal is to render the savage breast into a politically correct coma.  They are of that class of poetry technocrats—technocrats of the profane.  This provides yet another indication that the indie generation of poets is being paved over by the workshop generation.  Poetry’s authenticity is steadily undermined by zealots and the disingenuous who regard adherence to their banal party line as the enforcement of social values.  The position also serves as an ideal platform for arts administrators and the socially ambitious in the guise of poets who want to hold the reins of trend.  The fashion of cardboard cutout poetry figures represents a further gentrification of Americano poetry.

Poets In The Schools

Poets In The Schools began as a government funded make work program for unemployable English majors and has over its long tenure reinvented itself in an institutional role as the source of poetry orthodoxy and, unfortunately in some cases, represents the worst tendencies in US poetry.  Poets In The Schools is unassailable and sacrosanct.  Who would think of bad mouthing the teaching of poetry to children?  The program is virtually its own industry, aka The Poets Employment Bureau. Naturally, beside its pedagogic mission, its charge is to keep poets (real or assumed) working, in effect usurping the primary teacher’s prerogative (but who welcomes the break) and encompasses a large demographic of self-esteem do-gooder educrats. Some years back, in the early eighties, Kenneth Rexroth spoke to an educational conference up in Black Bart Country where he expressed doubt about the effectiveness of exposing children to poetry to an audience of educators and was soundly excoriated.  He was right but the self-righteousness of vested interests has its own truth.

The avant-garde has been erased, the revolution will be televised, and the genius of the poète maudit demoted to a romantic modernist eccentricity.

But why would anyone want to say bad stuff about poets in the schools? They are the many, scores upon scores of dedicated individuals, messengers of the poetry good vibe. Not all are, strictly speaking, good poets, although they are considered good enough poets in the consensus of their association. Their devotion to poetry is uncontested as are their good intentions.  However, the road to bad poetry is paved with good intentions. To echo Rexroth, children don’t need or necessarily want poetry. They want real world experience, driving lessons and sex education. If they are taught to write a convincing sentence, organize a reasoned argument or expression through language, and, most importantly, read, all of which is under the primary teacher’s purview, they will write poetry if they are so inclined and when they get around to it. Word play with the poetry lady or man can only serve to further gentrify the essence of poetry and caricature the poet.  Poetry is not a spelling bee or display of forensic argument or even an entry in the talent show. There must be a special place in Dante’s Inferno for those who teach children bad poetry.

Poetry Americano

The Americano canon is thin, padded by a captive Anglo American literary establishment obliged to an alien topography of the psyche.  That musty mind set dominates the curriculum.  And that hegemony is what enraged Williams so about Eliot’s capitulation.  It is what is being taught and written and promoted and sanctioned as US literature while genuine Americano voices are viewed as oddities and rustic outliers appreciated best when they’ve been dead a century or so.  Americano writers, poets in particular, present an awkward challenge.  They can’t be taught. How do you teach Dickinson or Whitman or Stein using outmoded mindsets and concepts?  Each Americano poet requires a unique approach to sidestep the overarching domination of the imperial glot. As Poe presciently observed almost two hundred years ago, the Brits may have lost the war (1812), but they will try to maintain their hegemony through the common language.  “Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo,” Antonio Gramsci emphasized in a different context but one that surely applies to the gentrification of US poetry, “Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.”

Poetry must resist commodification but by doing so makes itself all the more attractive as an object of desire.

The world of poetry is divided by factionalism, regionalism, and provincialism. The social fragmentation into fractal specializations defining schools and ideologies is the background noise against which it operates. The art of letters has essentially become one of movements rather than of solitary literary accomplishment. The exclusive group’s purpose is to marginalize everyone else through social strictures and put forward their own self-righteous brand.  As well, there are warring camps of faux decadent know nothings.  Although the friction of competing dogmas is characterized as vituperative conflicts such as the Language School against everyone else or animosity against the “self-aggrandizing” New York Poets or Conceptualists shooting themselves in the foot (a kind of parodic flagellation) or the New Formalists or the New Old Formalists or the Anti-Formalism Formalists or any and all institutions and organizations such as the Poetry Foundation (shudder),  they are hardly more than risible snits, historical (and hysterical) footnotes to a comedy of egos.  For those who take it seriously, it is as Michael Boughn put it in a seminal piece from the soon to be shuttered Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, “The war is about resistance to the displacement of becoming-with(in)-poetry by being-over-poetry, a change that quantifies it, turns it into a product that, if it meets certain understood standards and regulations, can be exchanged for a variety of rewards.”

There has always been a push to make poetry all tidy and neat and palatable to the undereducated, a consecrated mediocrity as a necessary social privilege making the case for what Arendt claims as exclusionary values. As Boughn points out “the forces leveling the world through the cultural economy of general equivalence and universal commodification successfully reoccupied poetry’s upper social orders in the US and integrated them into its institutional structure.”  The avant-garde has been erased (or co-opted), the revolution will be televised, and the genius of the poète maudit demoted to a romantic modernist eccentricity.  And who cares? Apparently no one, as a quote that stirred up the same entrenched place holders about a decade ago stated, “Poetry in America is widely perceived as useless, even by poets themselves. It is barely commodifiable.  Nonproductive, degenerate.  Bilge and dregs, poetry is the excrement of civic life.”

Because poetry is viewed as a standard of ultimate cultural achievement, or as George Steiner put it, “in some ways the highest human accomplishment, the one most imitative of the original enigma of creation,” there is the belief that it can be brought to bear as some kind of cudgel or silver bullet to vanquish our worst human tendencies from a moral high ground.  The public face of poetry is too often rhetoric in disguise.  The poem itself is an ineffectual chimera that can be as intangible and as disturbing as a dream.  It does not outrage our sense of justice so much as it leaves an indelible otherworldly impression on our psyche.  Poetry must resist commodification but by doing so makes itself all the more attractive as an object of desire. As far as being nonproductive and degenerate, the question has to be for whom and in what context?  And that poetry is the excrement of civic life, Jack Kerouac and Jean Genet, both said it long ago, “poetry is shit.”

Language as poetry is niche determining.  It is a metaphoric process in which the comfort of perfected stasis tries to maintain balance in the face of unexpected revelation at the turn of a phrase. How language is represented has always been a point of departure in its dissemination.  The shift from oral to written encountered a whole new universe.  Surface impressions of ink or paint as symbols depicting thought or consciousness have been digitized for instant evaluation and approval.  The universality of the social dimensions of that media dwarfs everything ever conceived in the transmission of information as it plugs into the cosmic wave function.  In times of enforced isolation, the grid (nodes) will determine the literary narrative.  Diluted and commonplace poetry will have to find new ways of becoming original.

All of this comes full circle, however, that even the most sophisticated can be provincial in their cultural appraisals. It is up to the membership to determine if this lengthy three part report is a legitimate gripe or a fit of pique. Yet here it is, and to paraphrase the caution once proffered to the editors of Life Of Crime (the precursor to this blog) by the late great Ted Berrigan, “Post this and duck!”


Submitted to the Membership
by the Parole Officer
5/12/2020

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part II

The Poète Maudit

In The Rules of Art, Pierre Bourdieu identifies a major pattern shift occurring in the social ranks as a result of the 19th century industrial revolution.  The rise of the bourgeoisie, of course, and the increase of itinerant labor populations, but also the upswing of free agents, dispossessed younger brothers, essentially an avant-garde of disaffected and unattached intellectuals living on the margins like masterless samurai. Bourdieu viewed them as an unintended consequence, “a creative rabble that continually reinvents itself in a perpetual revolution, grinding itself into smaller and more complex distinctions.” From the congeries of the literate ronin arose a particular romanticized archetype, the poète maudit, the cursed poet or damned poet, living a life outside or against society.  The anti-social sins (some might say skills) of drug abuse and alcohol, insanity, crime, violence, and general anarchy often resulted in an early and/or tragic death. Naïve as it may seem, belonging to that company of malcontents conferred an attractive outlaw status, as Arthur Rimbaud’s example can attest, and the irredeemability of the damned, as echoed in Baudelaire’s Fleur du mal. Shunned by polite society, theirs was ultimately, as all art should be, an anti-social art. In fact, it was Baudelaire who said, “A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”

Fast forward a century and a half and nothing’s changed.  The literary population is flyblown with bourgeois poseurs and ambitious wannabes, and they all have creative writing degrees.  The poètes maudits (now identified as outlaws, outliers, independent unaffiliated autodidacts) still lurk, still cursed, passed over for grants or fellowships or residencies or awards or honorariums because the pipeline is clogged with careerist eggshell walking poets cum art administrators whose literary talent is grant writing and advancing their personal agendas at white wine socials and mostly vanilla privilege peer conferences.

Apparently the sinful self-indulgence of public neurosis and bad manners under the guise of “poet” (mostly male, and of the horndog variety) with its associated behavior is looked upon with disfavor, disgust, and eye rolls as has mostly always been the case. 

Duchamp abolished art, Apollinaire abolished punctuation, Joyce abolished the novel, Stein abolished narrative time, Artaud abolished literature, and Berrigan abolished the sonnet, to name just a few 20th Century creative upheavals. Their aim was to thwart the pervasive valuation of the purchasing class and confront them with a critique of their expectations. No one (or very few) read the memo. The lemming march of the professional class continues unabated over the cliff of disposable literature.  Same as it ever was.  The great writers of American tradition are not professional litterateurs but the anomalous, Williams’ “pure products of America”, whose purity of intent is inspired by their own local truth, not the constraints of lab imparted tradition. Unfortunately, that sneaker shod individualism and independence is being paved over by the propriety of social acceptability. That is the tenor of the divide, the coarse and authentic, the glossy and superficial.  The rift can be seen in how socially self-conscious poetry readings have become.

The Rules

Apparently the sinful self-indulgence of public neurosis and bad manners under the guise of “poet” (mostly male, and of the horndog variety) with its associated behavior is looked upon with disfavor, disgust, and eye rolls as has mostly always been the case.  According to a well-informed Black Bart Country source, now, in the age of self affected social awareness, the rules have changed as to whom may present poetry to the public to ensure politically correct diversity, and still be assured of something of an audience.

  • There can only be one male poet (per reading).
  • No more than one “cis” gender poet. There should be at least one person of color, and one woman (though “queer” counts).
  • “Diversity” tests don’t apply to lineups composed entirely of persons of color or queers or trans people.
  • Exclusively female programs are okay only if they don’t violate racial or gender tests.

As to the verity of these tacit social provisos in the staging of poetry readings, two such events might serve as at least partial evidence.

A celebration of an anthology in response to ecological disaster, current or unforeseen, has gathered in a small space packed with chairs and standing room only in the back or off to the side, of fifty or so, mostly women, and who have poems in this near 500 page compilation.  Here at the margins of the literary world, they have gathered to express their angst in verse as former and current teachers, workshop leaders, workshop graduates, lifetime workshop devotees who have published their voiced concerns as poetry (or its semblance) in online magazines and poetry data banks. The great thing about cyberspace is that it is infinite and can take it all.  And that perhaps portends a new direction in literature.

The self-satisfied, delighted to be there to read their pleasant inanities. Is your intelligence insulted? Let my coyness be your balm.

Some read their poems from their smart phones which look decidedly smarter than they do while others read from the hardcopy noting the page in the anthology where their poems are located.  They speak softly to emphasize the gravity of their message.  And they all have messages, of concern, of apprehension, anxiety, foreboding as well as resolve and determination and the will to power. Theirs are deeply felt emotional appeals, auraed in gravitas and impending tragedy.

One parlor whispers things said in confidence with all the humility of a handmaiden vying for the head priestess slot.

Fashionable long scarves drape their necks like ecclesiastic vestments, signifying the sacredness of the task, and as stoles of office, an accessory for claiming sagacity.  It is part of the serious poet uniform‒unfortunately it comes across as something from the Unitarian Ministry, a similar solemnity of purpose weighing down the words.  If you can hear them.

Others trot out their credentials in case the poems don’t sway.  MFA in Creative Writing, Ph.D., ditto.  It is helpful in this context to remember that Marianne Moore did not hold a postgraduate degree and that Kenneth Rexroth’s formal schooling ended in the sixth grade.  But they are the new professionals and what they write is what they teach in their workshops and day long intensives.

Among all the breathless conjunctions and prepositions, the precise articles and implied punctuations, the verb and noun agreement in tense and number are some very serious words, some so serious they’re wondering what they’re doing in that poem in the first place.

To be fair, statistics are not poetry.  Citing statistics will not provide the proof to your poetry pudding.  Are you trying to impress me or put me to sleep?  “Nuthin’ nuttier than a retired schoolmarm,” admits another. The tired wisdom of the oppressed.  The tired guilt of the oppressors.  Why can’t we all get along?  Let’s take a nap. Together.

A few current and former poet laureates from various contiguous jurisdictions in attendance are introduced as if they were matriarchs of clans, the clans of Tupperware poets. It has all the precision of a practiced rite.  Food is served afterwards.

Presented on an unsettled late Sunday afternoon, the reading was a unique occasion for the rusticated local literati to meet and engage with poets at the forefront of artistic trends in  contemporary American poetry.

Poetry Snobs

On the other hand, the visiting poet, stranger in a stranger land, no matter how well known or accomplished, does not stand much of a chance of drawing an audience from an insular backwater poetry community, As everyone knows, art snobs are insufferable and poetry snobs are the worst, the epitome of blissful ignorance and I can’t be bothered with anything I don’t already know. Despite well publicized broadcasts to the poetry faithful and faithless on various social media frequencies and cultural tripwires, the provincialism of American poetry audiences, manifested as fear of the unfamiliar and not appearing hip, inhibits participation when the social terrain is uncertain.

Such was the case when Eddie Berrigan blew into the Bay Area from New York City last May with his fast buddy, John Coletti, for the launch of his new book of poems, More Gone. Both John and Eddie represent the new generation of poets published by that granddad of the avant-garde, City Lights Books.  Along with poet Garrett Caples, editor of City Lights’ Spotlight Poetry Series, they graciously agreed to travel an hour’s drive north of the Bay Area to Black Bart Country.  Schooled in late century post-Beat indie American poetry and associated with The Poetry Project in New York City and City Lights in San Francisco, these 21st Century bicoastal poets came to strut their novel modalities as the promise of a distinctive American prosody. The reading was held at a local art and literary affiliation, North Bay Letterpress Arts.

Luring a trio of younger generation cutting-edge poets for a rare engagement so far afield from the hub of literary culture seemed like an exceptional opportunity and worthwhile undertaking. As poets they represent a particular legacy rooted in the independent poets of The New American Poetry and as an outgrowth of the radical literary vectors of the seventies that included the noteworthy second generation New York Poets, the Language School consortium, and the ongoing colloquy of international innovation in the arts.  Eddie Berrigan, if the name hadn’t clued you, is Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley’s son, an accomplished poet and musician in his own right.  John Coletti, with local roots, comes from a family of poets.  Garrett Caples’ impeccable cred includes his knowledgeable editing of surrealist poet Philip Lamantia’s collected poems. Presented on an unsettled late Sunday afternoon, the reading was a unique occasion for the rusticated local literati to meet and engage with poets at the forefront of artistic trends in contemporary American poetry.

As it turns out, those in attendance could have easily complied with current social distancing guidelines, and then some.  Although the meager showing was disappointing, the extended Q&A after the lively reading by the three amigos was both informative and entertaining, offering an essential insight into their maturing in the American avant-garde tradition. And in the “there’s one in every crowd” department, at one point they were taken to task by someone whose political correctness was offended because the poets had not, collectively, mentioned women in their poems, or not often enough. Politicized social judgment of this kind sets up polarizations that makes everyone into victims and assigns guilt indiscriminately. In Hannah Arendt’s words, “The slow death of the political and the withering away of judgment are the preconditions for the socialization and devaluation of culture.”  As a member of the audience confided afterwards, “These guys are way too sophisticated for most poetry audiences in this county.”

Who can not acknowledge the profound shifts occurring that may reorganize society the way the industrial revolution did in its time or at the very least cause a thorough reassessment of social    arrangements? 

A Post-Apocalyptic Action Movie

Apart from the long established and institutional venues (The Poetry Project, Beyond Baroque, The Poetry Center among them) with the capital and the capacity to feature well published recognized names, the reading scene is catch as catch can and definitely provincial, even in urban areas: the empty seats of sparse attendance like a service at a gospel mission with an earnest young pastor (poet) and the luckless homilies (poems) falling on the unhearing ears of the jaded and the cynical. Poetry readings are primarily a social call. The question then becomes who has the drawing power? Is it generational, old school gray heads and gray beards competing for meat in the seats with undereducated workshop industry professionals and ambitious academics?  What about the younger poets?  Might they not be holding secret poetry readings and not telling anyone over thirty?  A long time Black Bart Poetry Society enabler notes that there is a sense that Bay Area reading scenes are tribal and generational, and that almost no one is known when venturing out of their tribal lands. The prevailing wisdom is that if you read with someone local you will get a bigger turn out. “It’s like a post-apocalyptic action movie minus the action.” But if one “belongs” to a tribe (coterie, clan, scene), one’s work is known by those of the younger (or older) generation within that social alignment. So what it comes down to is men vs. women, old farts vs. young bloods in a quagmire of mediocrity, all too conservative and concerned with the status quo. To be socially acceptable as a poet is merely to be shelved in a cultural category as a display of capitalized consciousness.  That hasn’t changed. What has changed is that poetry readings are being stage-managed by mostly well-meaning but clueless pedagogues engaged in the fetishization of diversity in a headlong rush toward the banal.

Nostalgia recalls that it was common in the day that poets and their confreres retired to a nearby bar for a self-congratulatory drink or two following a reading, certainly not to critique (unless you wanted to start a fight).  But over time poetry readings have become more genteel, like the self-contained salons of the 19th century Paris where everything was judged on a social scale and the entirety of the experience took place in situ. Emphasizing the shift from stage to the commons, the reading now is based on a different organizational perception, horizontal rather than vertical, with an inherent gender bias and the rule of consensus over competition in allowing less forceful voices to be heard. And what of the old poetry warriors of yesteryear?  Sadly, those who are left have mounted their own precious provincial closed shop in a sappy self-parody of everything they once claimed to despise.  As Ted Berrigan once noted, “American poets think you stand in line to get famous.”

The Isolate Age

At this point many of the questions and concerns addressed here are rendered moot or, at the very least, deferred.  Who can not acknowledge the profound shifts occurring that may reorganize society the way the industrial revolution did in its time or at the very least bring about a thorough reassessment of social arrangements?  The catalyst is biological instead of mechanical which should prompt a pause in the consideration of our place in the scheme of things—the current taxonomic model may be too simpleminded for the understanding of life in all its diverse manifestations. Thirty years in, there is the recognition that the information age is more than just a clever historical meta-label and that its potential is now unfolding like the crest of a tsunami. Will media come to the rescue of literature once again and up the ante on how information is organized and disseminated as an emergent paradigm? When pressed by dire circumstances, innovation and creativity arise as the hallmark of the species.  Literature, poetry in particular, is information that does not inform so much as give proof of life.  How will that be accomplished in the future (that’s a rhetorical question).  Technology changes the way we do business and for literature it is no different. Will it accelerate the Schumpeterian creative destruction of an outdated mode of self expression?  The muse must learn to video tweet.  And in the isolate age of zero contact, cyber connected, the oral and the visual will be reunited in the continuing recitation of the narrative and return poetry to its roots of voice and expression.  Might we not be at a point of transition when the age of poetry made by cocktail party becomes the age of poetry made by robots?  But what can be more gentrified than robot poetry in its blind adherence to binary algorithms. Geography and distance define provincialism, no matter the media. And provincialism argues for the common denominator that social privileging provides. Fortunately, in opposition to these trends toward the banal, the asceticism of the artist and poet, feral and anti-social by nature, works to counter the efforts of one-size-fits-all gentrification and the slide into naked pedagogy.

Submitted to the Membership by the Parole Officer


In Part III

“There are three components contributing to the gentrification of Anglo-American poetry: the ubiquitous workshop culture (pen and ink therapy), the politically determined poet laureate investiture (self-esteem enhancement), and the sacrosanct poets in the schools programs (learn to hate poetry) in a benevolent elevation of the undereducated.  Poetry can be learned, but can it be taught?”  

 

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Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part I

Definitions
To start with a definition: provincialism, a mode of thought no longer solely relegated to regions outside high density urban areas, and characterized by narrow-mindedness, insularity, lack of, or excess of, sophistication.

“The provincialism of contemporary poets represents a fragmentation based on social exclusion.”

And gentrification, the process of making a person or activity more refined or polite, and acceptable to social standards.

“Poetry has undergone gentrification in large part as a result of the workshop industry.”

Then consider poetry readings as the ground where provincialism and the gentrification of Anglo-American poetry are on display. And ask yourself, when was the last time you attended a poetry reading by someone you didn’t know or was not known by the person(s) you accompanied to the reading?   Are you a teacher, a student, student of poetry, poet, critic, publisher, relative/friend/lover of the reader(s)? None, or all of the above?  Is it because you are curious or excited by the esthetic promise of contemporary poetry?  Maybe it’s that the reader has name recognition, celebrity buzz, in the literary world. What part do you play (or want to play) in that world? Perhaps the poets have the same identity politics as you, so your attendance is a show of support.

Historically the public reading has been poetry’s neglected redheaded stepchild. In classical times Pliny the Younger counseled that one does not read one’s poems in public but hires an actor or a slave (often the same) to do it. The visibility and frequency of readings in the post war era is attributed to the popularity of Dylan Thomas’ highly publicized whirlwind train wreck reading tour in the States at the end of which he drank a dozen whiskeys in a row and promptly fell over dead—the not-so last gasp of neo-romanticism. Yet the idea that celebrity status could be conferred on the poet simply by public performance (and implied scandalous behavior) was certainly appealing to the hungry egos of literature and much more visceral than pages in a book.  Soon auditoriums, bookstores, and coffee houses were among the venues appropriated for the self-aggrandizing personality fests designated as poetry readings and whose value is strictly social.

“Poetry determined by consensus is devalued to the status of politics to be viewed as simply a legitimized social stratagem.”

Poetry readings in general are fraught with expectations. What is the purpose of a poetry reading?  Is it a chance for the poet to recapitulate what is on the page while the audience ruminates on the crux of what they are hearing?  Serious modern poets are, in essence, vanity authors. The general public is largely unaware and uninterested in their poetry.  Many publishers dismiss or reject it. Consequently, the poems are seldom read (despite being published in numerous obscure literary magazines and blogs) or heard, and if they are, it is primarily at poorly attended readings before an audience consisting mainly of fellow poets of similar persuasions, and equally anonymous.  At best, contemporary poetry is for, and by, specialists in the field of modern literature. Then again, one should not forget the predicaments these poets face, individually, socially, and esthetically, that brings their radical poetics into being and at the same time countering the banalization of their innovative turns by those whose only interest is “normalizing” their unconventional stand to make it more palatable to an undereducated audience.  They resist being objectified to satisfy the prejudices of mass education.  For them the poem is not solely words, it is also the poet.

Yet often the biggest problem with poetry readings is with the poets themselves. Poets can be exclusive and clannish, adopting gang-like monikers likely to include the word “School.”  The reason for this lies in the social nature of group cohesion and the difficulty of breaking with that particular in-crowd mindset learned so well in high school.  Poets don’t necessarily attend poetry readings for the poetry but to be seen among their peers and to judge their relative position in the hierarchy of that capricious camaraderie. This social grouping of inclusion and exclusion is not strictly limited to the poetry scene, there are narrow-minded, insular, ingenuous provincials in all arenas of culture.  Provincialism, as such, practices a brand of intentional ignorance, a willfulness that acts as a barrier to anything outside of self-imposed narrow-minded constraints. The poetry reading has become, or perhaps has always been, not so much an opportunity to hear poets read their own words, but a social event to see and be seen, to reinforce a social order of commonly held exclusionary values, what Arendt points to as “the socialization of culture” or its politicization.

Poetry determined by consensus is devalued to the status of politics to be viewed as simply a legitimized social stratagem. This raises the concern that much of contemporary poetry is ideological. Cultural roles then become exchange values to be used and abused for social purposes. For Arendt, in cultural politics, where “there is hierarchy and individualism, there will be tension, suspicion, competition,” the inevitability of us versus them.  Or now versus then.

Then And Now
A nostalgic comparison was made recently, remarking on the difference in attendance at poetry readings, then and now.  Then (late sixties, early seventies), readings were packed, raucous, and viscerally stimulating.  Reading attendance now is staid and sparse, and about as exciting as a Friends meeting.  There can be fewer than a dozen in the audience, or as many as fifty, usually for a name, literary darling, or group reading. Exceptions generally include memorials for widely respected poets, or readings by legends. There were easily 200 in attendance at Joanne Kyger’s memorial reading. Gary Snyder could still fill the pews. So, what happened?

It would be helpful to understand what the differences between then and now are, if now can be viewed as the current situation, always subject to change without notice, and appreciated with the benefit of hindsight. Then, literary events were still largely a rough and tumble male domain and ruled by a top dog pack mentality.  Readings were characterized by much yipping, yapping, and howling (among other canine proclivities) in a male bonding of boisterous agreement or contentious heckling.  Men, meaning boys in long pants, are inclined to mischief and mayhem, to overthrowing the norm as a challenge to hierarchy, pushing the limits and boundaries‒there will be loyalty as well as treachery in seeking the favors of the muse‒offering only perfunctory lip service to propriety.  Attendant was a hierarchal dynamic that demanded engagement, even confrontation, not detachment.

“The most obvious examples of cultural cannibalism are celebrity cults: people, teams, social activists, You Tube influencers.” 

Absent from, or invisible in this arena then were women poets.  That era, however, is marked by the raised consciousness of feminism and the push for inclusion.  It was undoubtedly an uphill climb, but women’s determination should never be underestimated. Currently, women’s leadership role in the literary arts, long overdue, has turned a corner and begun to dominate.  Socially savvy and conscious of the importance of stability in safeguarding group integrity, women strive to administer a governance that is effective and inclusive while still limiting anything deemed a threat (“boy-sterous” behavior?).  As a result of the horizontal structure of female interaction—the dome of inclusion as opposed to the pyramid of hierarchy— a normalization of poetry and poets is underway. The easiest to manage is the standardized, and the standardized is, unfortunately, devoid of the unpredictable.  While it may offer an approach for constancy, it is also a recipe for mediocrity. This is the social dynamic in play, and while no judgement is intended, a critique is implicit.

Art, it should be understood, is not gender specific, as Mary Gilbert’s Ninth Street Women amply illustrates, even though valuation of art had, and continues to have, gender bias.  Yet to speak of art in terms of gender is to speak of socially determined roles superimposed by a largely conservative undereducated society and culture.  The artist is inherently eccentric, orbiting the center to retain a unique perspective. The modern artist by necessity must resist socialization and evade the grasp of convention and conventionalizing. The artist as non-conformist is perhaps a romantic notion, yet success has a corrosive effect on the authenticity of art and artist when it is given social value beyond the actuality of its purpose.

Although art is the seed bed of culture for the use of all, the idea that art is democratic is erroneous. Socialized art acquires the value of property and as such is commodified for consumption. It is in the nature of mass society to devour or consume as an autophagic process the products of culture.  The most obvious examples of cultural cannibalism are celebrity cults: people, teams, social activists, You Tube influencers.  And that particular shine rubs off on all the products of culture. An initial valuation is not so much the worth of the art produced but its social significance provided by the status of the artist in the hierarchy of social standing.

The Provinces
There is no doubt that a shift in the social dynamic is underway in the poetry patch. The reading has now become a gauge of popularity, credibility, and relevance yet of limited literary value. As an example, from Black Bart Country (the very definition of the provinces), a reading series of long standing and solid if not stolid reputation featured a regional literary darling.  On the same bill, a poet and translator of no mean accomplishment but unlikely to be appreciated by the marginally educated, and a local fellow whose idea of poetry was torture and be tortured.

The experience was, as can be imagined, dreadful, but still instructive.  The majority among the three dozen or so in attendance were writing professionals of one kind or another, including retired liberal arts professors, creative writing post grads, workshop gurus and their acolytes, and various aggregations of wannabes, poseurs, and has-beens.  As well, there were a few talented individuals trying to maintain a brave face in the onslaught of gush and pretense.  But turn your back and there’s always the glint of knives.

For the most part what was presented was warmed-over pablum given gravitas by politically correct cliché, barely original or anywhere approaching weighty deep thought wrestled from the demon within.  Sadly, nothing but the shallow bleats of platitude were to be heard.

As was noted,

  • The syntax of lists truncates music.
  • When did the poem have to end with a serious brow?
  • Attempts of attempts and scented products.
  • TV room staccato dissonance.
  • One red carrot accomplishment far outstripping his popular recognition.
  • Narrative for the sake of narrative.
  • The lyrics trail off into understatement.
  • Words without relation to music.
  • The drone of anecdote is all.
  • Nasal no lilt challenged by the page.
  • Matter of fact practiced inanity phoning it in.

These types of readings seem to end with a sigh, like at the conclusion of a church service, serious bordering on sanctimonious.  And then everyone lines up to shake hands or greet the pastor, in this case the poet(s).  The wines and vegan gluten free petite fours are a reminder of what an art gallery owner once observed, that “Poets always bring food.”  The thought then, is it like inviting ants to a picnic?  As demonstrated by the jolly glad handing, the reading, despite its lack of overt literary value, was apparently a success. Nevertheless, although invoked, the muse did not make an appearance.

“There is a paucity of real world knowledge of poets and poetry outside the immediate or allied social groupings of various poetry mafias, networks, clans, and workshop cadres.” 

Poetry Goddesses
Aside from the poetry reading, another notable indication of a shift in postwar American literature that most workshop professionals and academics ignore, or are unaware of, was the resurfacing and recognition of the legacy of nonaffiliated poets and writers from the first postwar period of the 20’ and 30’s by a younger generation of radical American poets who were featured in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). In an effort to distinguish the field of poets from each other across the vast span of esthetics and geography encompassed by US poetry, Allen lumped them by region and/or aesthetic predilection so that New York poets were distinguished from The Beats or The Black Mountain School, San Francisco Renaissance, The Holy Barbarians, and so on.  While this certainly afforded a map of the distribution of artistic nodes and inclinations, it revealed the impossibility of a unified American poetics. Poetry thus subdivided by region serves to isolate and insulate as a characteristic of provincialism.  Allen’s anthology recognized the homegrown independent poets working outside the sanctions of academia and with, at times, a revolutionary fervor to upend the pretentious fussiness of a baroque Anglo literary hegemony.  An antagonism arose over the values and procedures of American lit, conservative and radical.  Again, this was brought about by the social nature of hierarchy and class, and what is acceptable to the primarily bourgeoise arbiters of taste.  Apparently, there are always barbarians at the gate (now known as zombies) as there will always be trend setting elites (vampires).  The elite have their suppositions as the barbarians have their actuality as the source of cultural friction. Or as Robert Graves’ The White Goddess would have it, court poets, i.e., the lap dogs of convention, vie with feral goddess (outlier) poets. However, in this era, rather than having male poets (mediums) speak for them as muses, the goddesses are writing their own poetry.

Two such poetry goddesses made their way to Black Bart Country on the tail end of a cross country reading tour which coincided with a rather frightful spell of wet weather in the region. Despite the stormy conditions, the reading, held in a letterpress art workspace, was quite well attended.  The poets, one of whom has been on the forefront of publishing women’s writing since the early seventies, and the other, an indefatigable author and promoter of women’s solidarity, were well received by the two dozen plus in attendance, a goodly turn out considering the damaging winter storm.  With notable exceptions, telling was the lack of representatives from the larger poetry community who might have benefited from exposure to the wisdom and experience not to mention the cutting edge poetics these independent poets had to offer. And that absence represents a poignant example of the insularity fostered by provincialism.  A regional darling of debatable literary distinction merits a large turn out because it is a social event more than one that emphasizes excellence and artistic integrity.  There is a paucity of real world knowledge of poets and poetry outside the immediate or allied social groupings of various poetry mafias, networks, clans, and workshop cadres. Poetry loses its way when guided by ambitions of social nepotism and in-crowd celebrity.

Submitted to the membership by The Parole Officer


In Part II of Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry

“The gravest threat to American literature is the English major cum English professor/teacher cum workshop professional cum arts administrator as their pedagogic mission is to pigeonhole and gentrify the genuine.”

 

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On The Use Of Euphemism

 Carl Wendt took note that the swim consisted of a lot of information about the proportions of oxygen to hydrogen, and a lot of that information consisted of lists, of coincidences, of lists of coincidences, and that he was doing the Australian crawl when he wasn’t doing his favorite, the breast stroke.

His finger was poised to depress the doorbell over which a brass plate bore the name R. Granahan.  Professor emeritus Richard Granahan had a duplex over in the Saint Anne’s neighborhood.  At that moment the dingy white door with a large dusty square of pebbled glass taking up the top half opened and Marguerite Sayrah emerged, blinking twice before realizing who was standing there.  Then she made an unpleasant face and brushed passed him with a grunt of disapproval.  She was followed by a short round man with an orange billed Giants ball cap and a patchy black beard.  He was dressed entirely in black, except for his orange Converse sneakers.  He kept his head down to avoid looking directly at Wendt.

     Wendt shrugged and let himself in.  He followed the hallway down to Dick’s bedroom.  Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the old man was given six months to live.  That had been nine months ago.  Dick Granahan, prize winning poet, scholar, and infamous lothario, had been Wendt’s faculty advisor at State during his ill fated attempt at a post-graduate degree.  As Dick was also fond of a hearty brew, they often went for a drink at The Rustic Union, a pub within walking distance of campus.  Granahan’s graduate level Advanced Poetry Seminar met there on occasion.  What he called his “meet the masters” class.  He would invite well-known literary figures to dinner and drinks in the company of his students.  He discontinued it after a while because, as he said, “there was just too much disappointment.”

Then there was what became known as the “Grannyhand” scandal.  Apparently, RG, as some people referred to him, had offered extra credit to some of the female students in his undergraduate Advanced Poetry class in exchange for the rendering of a particular sexual favor.  Grannyhand seemed to say it all.

Close to retirement, Dick quietly resigned his position at State and the University just as quietly swept it under the rug.  Not long afterwards, Granahan was offered the position as head of the writing department at New Arts Inc., the chain of liberal arts diploma mills with campuses in most big American cities.  At New Arts Inc., Frisco, or NAIF, sexual relations between staff and students were not unheard of or particularly frowned upon.

The Grannyhand affair was not without its backlash or consequence, however.  Dick’s wife, Jane, divorced him.  His only son, Austin, refused to speak to him.  And his daughter, Marla, possibly exhibiting some of her father’s predilections, became a lesbian porn queen.  It had been a rough time for his old friend and Wendt was one of the few who stood by him.  Through the odd coincidence of chance and habit, they would get together regularly on Tuesdays.   Even so, it was not quite a month of Tuesdays since he’d dropped by.  Watching his old friend die was not at all comfortable.

Richard Granahan was a profane little man with a slab of snow white hair slapped across a wide forehead and a nicotine stained cookie duster below the bloated and pocked bulb of broken blood vessels.  When RG died, and that might be any day, they could roll him up, attach a handle to him, and he would be no larger than a moderate sized suitcase.  But even now, bedridden, he seemed quite alive.  At least his hand was, under the sheets.  Pummeling?  Or grabbing?

“That’s ok, Dick, you don’t have to give me a demo.  I’m quite familiar with how it’s done.”

The shrunken old man startled, pulled as he was by two dissimilar impulses, surprise and ecstasy.  Surprise won because it was more immediate.  “Wendt, you crazy son of a bitch, you could have given me a heart attack!”

“Why don’t we just say that I saved you from another one of those little deaths?”

Dick, laughing now and relieved for the distraction, extended his hand in greeting.

“Hope you don’t mind if I pass,” Wendt said pulling a chair closer to bedside, “I know where that’s been.”

Dick’s face glowed red as the big smile that broke across his face rendered him speechless.

“So, been practicing long?”

“At my age sex with anyone but myself would just be plain embarrassing.  After you reach a certain place in life, your cock is your only friend.  You and it against the world!  To my amazement I can still get it up.  Long enough to do the job!”

“Ow! Please, Dick!  Too much information!”

“At one point I figured why not get that momentary pleasure that still puts a sparkle in my eye.  I want to die with that sparkle in my eye.  I work on it daily.”

“So that’s why you were rowing with one oar.”

“Right, yanking the crank.”

“Stretching the slinky.”

“Choking the doughboy.”

“I always heard it as choking the chicken.”

“Yes, that’s fairly common, as is pounding your pud.”

“Whatever a pud is.”

“I’ve heard that pud is the diminutive for pudding.”

“I guess that makes sense, in its own odd way.  As much as baby batter makes sense.”

“On the other hand, it could very well be a shortened form of pudendum.”

“Pounding your pudendum?  I can see why it was shortened.  But I thought that pudendum applied to female genitalia.”

“It has come to be applied almost exclusively to the female but it applies to the male as well.  Interesting that the Latin root for the word is the verb ‘to be ashamed.’   So you can see that self gratification has a long history of disapproval.”

“Beating your meat, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors, doesn’t beat around the bush.”

“Clearing the pipe is also quite graphic but quotidian.”

“I was always partial to flogging the log.”

“Well, yes, that does have a kind of assonant alliteration that is stock and trade in these kinds of euphemisms. Like buffing the banana or grappling the gremlin.”

“Lobbing a gob.”

“Collaring the cleric, testing the testicles, yes, like that.”

“Venting the ventricle, pumping the python.”

“Have you ever heard punishing Percy?  That goes a ways back.”

“Right, like playing pocket pool.”

“And there are those that take on the attributes of labor like varnishing the flag pole or adjusting the antenna.”

“Basting the ham.”

“Painting the ceiling.”

“Warming up the engine, restarting the rotisserie.”

“Lubricating the lance.  I imagine that has quite a provenance.”  Granahan had started giggling, his eyes moist with delight.

“True, jollying the Johnson is more contemporary.  As is jacking junior.”

“I believe that the British have it as wanking the willie, or just wanking which is rather pedestrian for a tribe that prides itself on its poetry, don’t you think?”

“Don’t they also say pulling the taffy?”

“Boffing the bishop.”

“How about fingering the skin flute?”

“No, I think flute refers to another feature of that nether anatomy.”

“I was thinking flute like something someone would blow.”

“Of course. Then there are the ones that refer to other species to aid in their subterfuge.  Stroking the snake. Taming the shrew. Tugging the slug.”

“Wagging the walrus.  Bending the badger might also be one.”

“Spanking the monkey.”

“Oiling the one-eyed eel.”

“That’s rather exotic but since we’re being aquatic, how about releasing the tadpole torpedoes?”

“Goosing the frog?”

“Hmm, that has a rather cross species perversity to it.”

“Opening a worm of cans.”  Wendt smiled at the interpolation, but Dick didn’t seem to notice, intent as he was now on what had become a competition.

“Manhandling the midget, tenderizing the tube steak.”

“Stretching the meat sock.”

“Waxing the carrot.”

“Twanging your magic twanger.”

“Practicing the secret handshake. Also referred to as performing a sleight of hand.”

“Pulling the wool over old one-eye.”

“That’s only if you’re not circumcised.”

“Good point.”

“Then for the educated man there’s always erecting a singular proposition.”

“Oh, in that case, fleshing out the future.”

“Enabling the opposable advantage.”

“The precious thing hard to obtain.”

“What’s not hard? It’s available day and night.”

“It’s Jung.  The infantile ego and all that crap.”

“Well, that takes all the fun out of it.”

“You asked.”

“Well, how about this: stealing fire.”

“Exactly what I was getting at.”

“Grasping the awful truth.”

“Dowsing the abyss.  For the existentialist wanker.”

“Quickening the pulse.”

“Ordering the hors d’oeuvres, whisking the marinade.”

“Restocking the inventory.  For the neo-Darwinians.”

“Slapping your pappy, mastering your domain.”

“Shaking hands with the master.”

“Now you’re getting down to the truth!” Granahan insisted, animated by the amusement of their word play.

“Grappling with the love vine.”

“That’s fine if you think you’re Tarzan.  But then who doesn’t?”

“Owning up to your onanism.”

“Tagging the bed sheets.”

“Going blind on a date with yourself.”

The old man shook with a paroxysm of laughter, gasping for breath like a wicked rag doll.

“Shit, Granahan, you ok?”

Eyes watering, a smile full of yellow gnashers, Dick nodded.  “It’s laughter you have to watch out for.  It’ll kill ya.”  He wheezed out a few more chuckles.

“So who were you wanking on?”

Granahan hesitated.  “Who was I what?”

“Come on, Granahan, who did you have across your knees in the fold-out spread?  Wait a minute!  I ran into her on my way out!”

Granahan’s mug was the model of sheepishness.  “Yeah, Marguerite Sayrah.”

“Ok, I’m beginning to see a pattern.  Wasn’t Kay one of your students at State?”

“Yeah, fuck, Wendt, you’re on the right track.  No need to spell it out.”

“A sister in the silly putty sorority of the grannyhand.  I bet there’s even a blog devoted to the posting and discussion of their experiences, barbeques, bitch sessions, travels to Cancun where they seek out old retired English professors and fulfill the old farts’ fantasies.  Though I’ll bet Kay doesn’t belong to that group or read their blog.”

“I’ve done some things I’m not very proud of.  I’m ashamed of my anti-social transgressions.”

“Well, yes, you did teach creative writing.”

Granahan ignored him.  “And that’s one chapter in my life I would do over if I could.  I’m not going to get the chance.  I feel bad enough about it.  You don’t have to rub my face in it.”

Wendt pulled the half-pint bottle from his inside pocket and held it up to Dick.  “Here, maybe this’ll give you a lift out of your self pity.  It’ll help with that mealy taste in your mouth.”

“Jesus, you really are trying to kill me, aren’t you?

Wendt shrugged and took a bite of firewater. “Headache cure.”

“Now that, on the other hand, is just unhealthy.  Wendt, it’s not even noon!”

“I eat at noon.  Now’s the time for a drink.”

“You on a tear?  You look a little rumpled.”

Wendt told him the tale of his eviction from Dorian’s couch.  “This is just going to be one of those days that’s longer than twenty four hours.”

“How is old Dorian these days?”

“Just like you, dying.”

“Yes, and the vultures are circling.”

“Speaking of which, what’s going on with Kay?  She just renewing old attachments?”

“Who? Oh yes, Marguerite. Very funny.”  Granahan sighed, “She’s under the illusion that she’s my literary executor.”

“Who was the little guy with her?”

“A poet, I can’t remember his name.  He is quite technically adept.  Which is why I might question his qualifications as a man of letters.  They’re different realities, you know.”

“So like Igor to her Victor Frankenstein?”

“They want me to post my thoughts and poems on this blog they created for me.  They didn’t like the name I came up with, but they weren’t going to get me to do it otherwise.  It’s called With My Last Dying Blog.”  Granahan dragged a swivel arm table with a laptop attached to it directly in front of him.   “I’ve got this set up, see.  It’s supposed to be some sort of cross media engagement of the arts.  So I’m to type in some old poems or the couple of new ones, the ones that still dribble out.  Or I recycle some of my old essays.  Or lectures.  I can say pretty much anything I damn well please.  People can comment on what I say in this comment box, here.”  He moved the arrow to point at the small rectangular window to one side of the page on the screen.  “I call it the snark tank.  Lot of mudslinging and mud wrestling goes on in there.  But what do you expect?  They’re just kids.”

“Ill-mannered children jockeying for status in the eyes of their elders,” Wendt volunteered.

The old man sighed, weary.  “Some days I don’t feel like saying anything.  Then I get a flood of queries asking me if I’m ok when in reality they’re  wondering if that last post I put up was virtually the last one and am I now just a flat line.”  Dick widened his eyes in mock disbelief.  “And the sycophants!  It’s like having a whole meadow of sheep lined up to kiss your ass with their bleating inane servility!  The last couple of times I’ve posted I’ve been saying things like ‘Get a life!’  Or ‘fuck off!’  That’s why Marguerite and Igor were here.  Because I was being uncooperative and ruining her expectations of me.”

“What’s the big deal?  You get to ensure your legacy.”

Dick spat “Legacy” as if the word had a bad taste.  “I’m a fossil.”

“So you’re immortal chalk.  Why not lay down some tracks, let the future generations figure out what you’re all about?”

“I’d rather jerk off.” As soon as he spoke the words, Dick’s look of consternation and dread prompted Wendt to glance back over his shoulder.  A tall shadow in a religious habit had materialized in the doorway.  There was something very unfeminine in the angles of the face peeking out from the starched frame of the wimple.

“It’s ok, sister, he’s a friend of mine,” Dick called anxiously as the nun’s shadow melted away.

“What happened to Paloma?”  Paloma, a busy little Filipino woman, had been Dick’s hospice worker from the beginning.

“I don’t know.  One day this nun shows up.  And says she’s one of the volunteers at the Hospice Center and would be taking Paloma’s place until they found a replacement for her.  Maybe she went back to Manila.  It’s downright creepy.  I went to Catholic schools growing up in Marquette.  All my teachers were nuns.  Do you have any idea what that does to you?”

“Maybe.  I attended a nursery school and kindergarten run by two French nuns of an Irish order.  The Sisters of Perpetual Redundancy.  I learned to speak a little French and dislike the Irish.”

“You know the problem with having nuns as teachers?  You fixate on saintly women and end up with one, and everybody knows you don’t want to live with a saint.  Let me tell you, I know from experience. We used to fear and hate them.  We had this joke.  If penguins are flightless birds, what are nuns?

Wendt shrugged, the bottle to his lips

“Fuckless chicks!”

The nun was having a cigarette leaning against the stucco balustrade of Granahan’s stoop.  The nun was a man.

“Got a cigarette?”

The nun reached deep into his habit for a crumpled pack and shook one out.

Wendt accepted a light. “So what’s the story with the nun getup?”

The nun scoffed a laugh and told the story.  Granahan’s hospice worker, Paloma, had complained to the parish priest that Dick was doing lewd things in front of her and she was worried that if Granahan kept at it, he would go to Hell.  She liked her job and was fond of Mr. Dick, as she called him.  She just wanted to know how she could get him to stop. Father Russo, the parish priest, knew the Granahans quite well. As a young family they often attended services together, and he had counseled Dick and Jane before their divorce so he was aware of a lot of the intimate details of their lives.  He knew that Granahan had attended a parochial school run by nuns as a child.  He decided to try and shame him by replacing Paloma with a nun, but he didn’t want to subject the good sisters to such wanton display.  Father Russo knew that he was a performance artist who included a skit about a nun in his repertoire.  The man owed the old priest a favor.  So he garbed up and roamed the halls looking fearsome.

“Hasn’t helped, has it?”

“No, he’s still greasing the mongoose.”

“Cuffing the koala.”


Pat Nolan’s poems, prose, and translations have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in North America as well as in Europe and Asia.  He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry and two novels.  His most recent books of poetry are So Much, Selected Poems Volume II 1990-2010 (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2019) and the thousand marvels of every moment, a tanka collection (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2018). He also maintains Parole, the blog of the New Black Bart Poetry Society.  His serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of American Genius, is available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  He lives among the redwood wilds along the Russian River in Northern California.

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Blue Suede Shoes Redux: The Specimen Issue

Legend has it that that Keith Abbott joined the mimeograph underground by liberating a ream of paper from the WWSC English Department supply closet, acquiring a quire of stencils (one may say that now), and finding someone with a mimeograph machine.  The end result was a poetry magazine, Blue Suede Shoes, begun in Bellingham, Washington, relocated to the Monterey Peninsula, and then to Berkeley.  Abbott embraced the mimeo magazine mystique with all its rebel outlaw underground overtones as a far seeing statement of a generation redefining the literary culture by pointing out as risible the inconsistencies of the Anglo-American academic establishment.

In the early 1970’s Blue Suede Shoes published a representative affiliation of poets in the  San Francisco Bay Area who were mostly not native (Steven Lavoie, a notable exception) and from out of state—part of the youth migration to the Bay Area, a center of attraction through Beat notoriety, university influence, and artistic ferment as an alternative counterculture Mecca to New York City  (which had its own rough and tumble counterculture and poetry scene on the Lower East Side although the light there was different).  Many of the writers associated with Blue Suede Shoes as contributors were west coasters, nonetheless, and privileged by their own particular coastal sensibilities as exemplified by its editors, an urbane Hollywood scion Steve Carey from the LA area, and an erudite quick witted Keith Abbott from the Tacoma suburbs.  Keith provided the technical knowhow and enthusiasm for literary mayhem, and Steve provided the astute expertise of an unerring literary eye (or is that ear?).  Steve was dialed in to the Ed Sanders/Ted Berrigan radical scene as well, hence the smattering of New York School writers whose work appeared in Blue Suede Shoes.   Keith had Northwest sympathies and associations among whom were Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and master printer and poet Clifford Burke to complete an amalgam that worked well in that it provided a bi-coastal esthetic that was current and well informed about the leading edge of American poetry, effectively side-stepping the baroque inclinations of academics and English majors.  Both subscribed to the snake oil con man myth of the American West (think W.C. Fields or The Marx Brothers), and were bent on perpetuating hoaxes and punking the establishment modeled on the anti-art example of Duchamp and Dada.

Issue #1 was printed in Bellingham in 1970.  The Organized Religion issue was either #4 or #6, both produced in 1971, as was #5, Bob Hope In A Buick, a selection of poems by Pat Nolan.  Issue #7 was a post-Smith Going Backward selection of poems by Steve Carey titled Fleur de Lis, also published in 1971, and concurrently with Abbott’s poetry chapbook, Thick and Thin as #8. As many little poetry magazines of its day, Blue Suede Shoes burned bright and burned fast.  In 1972 Abbott collaborated with British poet and artist Opal L. Nations, the Rupert Sheldrake of poetry and editor of a London based quasi-surrealist punk pop lit rag, to publish Blue Suede Shoes Present Strange Faeces Number Nine as BSS #11.  The next four issues, through #15, were comprised of Abbott’s poetry, prose and inspired miscellany.

A partial list of contributors to the dozen plus issues would include Ray DiPalma, Dennis Kelly, Jim Gustafson, Bob Heman, Bruce Andrews, Mary Norbert Korte, Jim Brodey, Barbara Barracks, Opal L. Nations, Clifford Burke, Ron Padgett, Richard Snyder, Steven Lavoie, Avron Hoffman, Jack Anderson, Tom Raworth, Michael Sowl, Curtis Faville, Bill Bathurst, Aram Saroyan, Glen Baxter, David Gitin, Larry Fagin, Tom Clark, Pat Nolan, Michael Sean Lazarchuk, and Paul Violi, with cameo guest appearances by Jean Follain, Max Jacob, Apple Betty, Spike Drihourst, Ana Deal, Robert Frost, and Magic Eddy.

It was enough to make James Schuyler sit up and take notice, as he remarks in his March 1971 letter to Trevor Winkfield: Have you ever exchanged magazines with Keith Abbott? He is, or was, Blue Suede Shoes. I like a lot of his poems—sort of West Coast Padgett, with a lot of the dilution that might imply—also someone he’s published named Pat Nolan, who’s a little closer to being a West Coast Larry Fagin; or perhaps is to Abbott what Fagin is to Padgett? Only different. . . .” (Just The Things, Selected Letters of James Schuyler Turtle Point Press, 2004).

Following a two year hiatus, due undoubtedly to the machinations of relocation (Berkeley?), BSS returned as the bane of librarians with the dreaded Decimal issues.  Keith’s pleasure, perverse or not, in Coyote pandemonium is obvious in the bibliographic havoc caused by the decimal issues. In 1974 BSS .099 consisted of a selection of Abbott’s poems titled Erase Words (published in an expanded edition by Blue Wind Press in 1977).  BSS .049 was a back to back book issue, Ace sci-fi style, of Face by Michael-Sean Lazarchuk and Chocolate Winter by Michael Sowl.  BSS .001 was published in 1975 as Being Alone With A Girl, concept and illustrations by Opal L. Nations.  According to the inventory list it was “the most notorious” issue, a cut-up of a found 50’s dating manual and illustrated by Nations.  BSS .314159265 (the pi issue), with covers and illustrations by Opal L. Nations, consisted of compilations of texts and commentary by the readers (real or imagined) on Being Alone With A Girl (BSS .001) and for clarity also titled Being Alone With A Girl.  BSS .5 was naturally the First Manifesto of Syllogism issue, likely candidate as a riposte to the Organized Religion issue.  BSS .986 which has the distinction of being the first publication of Steve Carey’s legendary “Rarity Planes” (not to be mistaken for one of his other legendary poems, “AP”) was the Fill-in The Blanks (or The Misplaced Decimal) issue.  And BSS .017 had the says-it-all title of The Dripping Dagger Dolly issue.

A mimeo mag in those days was an establishment of presence as well as a quasi samizdat cooperative publishing scheme as a node in a network easily connected by the postal service.  The only instant back then was coffee. Instant (online) publishing was the stuff of science fiction.  At its beginnings mimeograph was the tool of war resistors and conscientious objectors whose example of dissident struggle was adopted by marginalized non-establishment writers.  It was a cheap, easy to use, portable means of communicating an opposing point of view.  Some mimeo magazine publishers became quite adept at consistently producing a readable respectable product over a period of years.  For the most part, however, longevity of a small mimeo magazine was mercifully short—five years was an eternity for a mimeo poetry press.  What was accomplished, however, was a visibility among a particular coterie of artists and writers.  That was the fate of Blue Suede Shoes.  After 1976, it ceased publication.  A bare bones inventory list of Blue Suede Shoes as a pdf file is available here.

Following the publication of Erase Words by Blue Wind Press, Abbott was invited to read at The Poetry Project in the fall of 1978.  While in New York City, Keith reestablished personal contact with his old partner-in-crime and co-editor, Steve Carey, prompting a review of past glory and “why the hell not, let’s do a nostalgia issue. Yeah! Call it ‘the specimen issue’.  We’ll invite all our favorite poets to contribute a poem.  And if they don’t respond we’ll write one in their stead. . .as a free editorial service.  Why not just cut out the middle poet and write them all ourselves, using their rhetorical personas, of course.”  Of course.

Thus a plan was hatched to get back into the literary mayhem business and return to the days of audacious anarchy, a plan that unfortunately would never be realized.  Not that an attempt wasn’t made.  Literary history is fortunate that some of that work survived as stray pages of poetry and copies of letters. These documents arrived at the Society’s office a number of years ago as part of an archival acquisition consisting of odds and ends of manuscripts, copies of typewritten letters, and copies of copies of various ephemera passed around the poetry backchannels where deals are made and knives are sharpened.  Because it is mostly Carey’s side of the correspondence with Abbott, much is left to be inferred.  As exampled below, work was being done to provide the specimens of writing.

In a letter dated 12/26/78 Steve reports his progress

 Dear Keith –

Well the dust has settled partially settled on you and Pat’s triumph and NYC is back to its ball-freezing self….

I’m on a plane in a few hours for Christmas on the Coast.

Here’s a couple of items for BSS’s specimen issue.  I’ve been trying to finish off a fake Berrigan poem but it doesn’t look like I’ll get it done till after the first of the year.  Needless to say Anne Waldman doesn’t know she wrote the work I sent you…I think it’s a good idea to put the “C” magazine archives bit on the end so as to lay the blame and liable suits where it belongs – to the massive lap of I mean of Massa Ted and Lady Alice.

Hope these get to you in time.
My love to you and yours. . . .

Love,

[Steve]

An “address” to the reader explains the likely and facetious inspiration for “the specimen issue”. 

DEAR READER

Due to the influx of mail, engendered by the fab ariticle written about in or appearing in Tri-Quarterly’s biggies about editing little magazines, we felt it incumbent upon ourselves to do another issue so as to satisfy the demands of our ever voracious public.

The single request for a specimen issue sparked this specimen issue off.  This request which is reproduced somewhere in the magazine. . . .

Calls to our faithful went out.  Letters and mailgrams were written and sent.

The response was staggering.  As you can see by the boastful cover, the firmament of American poetry responded.

Dated 3/3/79 Steve updates with a quick handwritten note

Dear Keith—

Here’s a couple more hoaxes for Blue Sued Sue.  Harris Schiff and I wrote the Alice Notley piece.  The Berrigan I did alone (except for a few Berrigan books from which I was able to maintain compositional integrity by employing Ted’s very methods).

A Snyder poem?  I’ll try it, but if you think I’m going to sit on the floor in perfect lotus and write it you’ve got another thing coming.  Do I have to burn incense?

Hope the issue is still on—not abandoned or already completed or anything perfectly reasonable like that.

See you soon. . .

More on the way

ALICE ORDERED ME TO GET LAID

When I had a crush on Simone Weil I was blighted
the mere fact of her existence was a hideous artifice
an affront to my favorite deity
                                  the god of lust.
He stands outraged where the moon
                                  fell on the stoop
his kilt billowing akin to my skirt.
He wants attention or her wants to be left alone
or legacy.
               When we pass it is good passing.
He started late, vows excellence forever.
Table cloths       Bocce ball    I forgot his last name
why did she do that anyway?
                             Don’t tell me the truth
I like being in a state of being pilled and an air of hustling
so I can sweet talk the man at the fish store
who knows everyone and gives away nothing
but yesterday he said to me that History teaches
that fishin’ is constant
he confessed this ecstatically showing his wisdom tooth
would you please kiss me
not me I kiss the vermillion specter
will you join me often sitting on ass true buggery light?
Have mercy. Have mercy, baby
                             sick tonight on mercy beer
I am the squeek wicker kiss of chair when you sit
and when you lay I lie to sweeten the news what’s broken
my ass in the aria
                   going to my world.
You dream a week and sleep it off, the harelip scatsinger
with a problem back, Daddy,
                             save me a donut.
Fuckall is a name I have for myself.  He says
lame excuse.  Under your tongue looks like a dork.
I don’t know I got thrown off a horse at Santa Anita.
The colors are so much brighter now that I’m deaf.
Among dilettantes I am lapse into not that song.
I am a verbal agreement to be obstinate.
     “I shot the sheriff
                        but I did not shoot the butcher. . .”
I was in Colorado & I can prove it Ma’am
I swear by my nipples which god only knows everyone has Ma’am
tho mine might be more titillating than Godzilla’s or Hitler’s
but get your Disney off my desert please Ma’am

                                      -- Alice Notley

In a letter dated July 31, 1979, Steve reminds (or warns) Keith that Ted Berrigan is headed to the Bay Area.

Dear Keith –

By the time you get this, the monster Irish bozo who wrote the thing and asked me to send it to you will most likely be in your immediate vicinity.  This is Ted’s Steve Carey poem – not a bad job, I must say, though of course in no way comparable to my Ted Berrigan poem.

I’m working on the Padgett and Whalen works you sent me.  They seem pretty much on the money as is, but you know me. . .I’ll do anything for a pretty face.  I’ve so far got a couple pages of Ronny (Oklahoma Crude”) Padgett nee Walton saying the same thing over and over while debasing his brain-casing and begging the indulgence of Dear Reader.  I just love it when Ron does that.  Philip I’ll just air out a little or maybe just take him up and off the wall a few times.  I’m not sure.  In any case, as soon as the mosquitoes give me a few minutes to myself (it’s no good typing and swatting at the same time: you end up with neo-passé Concretist Poetry), I’ll send them on to you to do with as you please.

 Here is Ted Berrigan’s parody of Steve’s poetry:

JAP CINDERELLA

          for Peter Whalen

here I am at 92 a.m. in The Woman’s House of Detention
the air is hot? inky? fiction? no, heat, on the way to pomp
directionless device at corner is no help AND
so I drink down some Irish Milk fuck Scotch both this
          kind of day AND
light smoke.  The streets, regrouped tonight because of
a.) a Bedouin b.)$512.00, lack of & c.) my yellow cup,
“I’m the girl in the yellow cup, cup”
Look is it clitoral as toothpicks on my porcelain
Sink mine, yours, whoever.  So I essay
NuYorican grimace (i.e. smile) also thuds (grimace) twitches
(snarl) polarity-hop (scratch balls) cough.
                   The my enemy of Harris Schiff is on
later but now well, now,
     Who would have thought that I’d be here?  Manahatta?
Not good old A Girl, not Madame Backward, nor Cindy, Della
Berater, Miss Energy-Going-Backward, certainly not Frieda Disgust 
even
              The my enemy of Harris Schiff says
“I think I’m going out of my head” the bank is closed too just
Like they might as well be anyway.  ANYWAY.
My poet thoughts go through my heads:  Nook: Equals: Aging: Seal:
Divorce-ing: Married: Sand: & Box: Sandbox.  “Well,
We don’t have to go anywhere.”
I am impending tizzy sickly pale o’ercast with bump! When
Will I be admirable or deplorable ambition, Dramamine provided
No Extra Charge?
Alone and nondescript Tomcat Mountains
Only dug at traffic light by traffic light, I slip softly into
               Face River. . .
“you call that home?”  You bet your ass I call that Home you fuck!
The world’s Riff-Song flows through my lunch-pail.

--Steve Carey

Here is an excerpt from Steve’s Berrigan poem modeled on Ted’s post-Sonnet Calder-esque “Tambourine Life” and the Things To Do poems (it goes on for three more hilarious eerily accurate pages):

THE SWEET SCIENTIST

for Tommy Finnigan, Danny O’Toole, 
Paddy Sullivan, Tom Dooley, Flan
O’Flaherty, Bump Mulligan, Alan
Dugan, Rick Michael Duffy, Brother
Mickey, Jim Kennedy, Brian Patrick
Aloysius Feeney, Duff Hanrahan &
Teddy Cassidy

 

           Dear Miss,

                     hello.

I wake up

                           each strong morning

                noonish

                                the unlikely sight

     beached

                     on the shores

           of this

                           the 51st state

It is important

                     to wait

           when it is most

                                how you say

                                           severe

     That is not to say warm

                Not now




                           *




                     No

It’s Bump & Run

                           with today’s mail

                providing you can “read” the field

           so

Pepsi, pill, paper

                           One must be sure footed

                                to use the stutter step

                           *

 

The Philip Whalen imitation is apparently a collaborative effort as is the Ron Padgett spoof though who contributed what is unknown.

NOWHERE FAST

oh where are my manic ambergris
here they are right where
the Lakavosatra Sutras said they were
    
i.e. “when the true Buddha comes there will be
     rejoicing even under the cooking pot lids”
Swami Upshadacinx, V. 2., ed.
Vivian Satisflux, tr. Dutton
Edwin-Jones Forkwith, Bodley Head

gork vap slurp
under my cooking pots nada
broke again i.e. broke again i.e.
we see under our lids the same
as we see out? over? in? through? up? Down? Our eyes

              “. . . . .ain’t seen nothing yet.”

how come everyone hands me the
universe & I gotta explain it all as if

grouse
cows unwind around where a dead cow was once

--Philip Whalen




LEFT BY THE PETUNIAS

I don’t know why I can’t
I was going to say
Think today by then I
I was already
This little man in my
Was going to say mind
But he’s really not er
He sort of speaks out of the clouds
little pieces of space ship raining down

-- Ron Padgett

The supporting documents, which include copies of the letters and the copies of extant takeoffs of Michael McClure, Ann Waldman, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, a Classical English Shepherd collaboration between Ted and Steve, a collaboration between Creeley and Edgar Allen Poe, and the entirety of Carey’s  Ted Berrigan poem are available here as pdf files: Specimen Correspondence (2 pages), Specimen Poems & Letters (18 pages)

In the early years of the mimeo revolution, small poetry mags proliferated like mushrooms after a rainstorm.  Pat Nolan’s the end (& variations thereof) was one of them, modeled on Blue Suede Shoes in its literary flippancy, appropriation and impersonation. Michael Sean Lazarchuk’s Baloney Street from Ventura, and Famous, an associated magazine, published out of Oakland by Steven Lavoie were also  70’s offerings.  And magazines published by Darrel Gray and George Mattingly out of Iowa smuggled the Actualist phenomena to the Bay Area, yet another good time hoax bought into by the clueless.

By the late seventies, however, the mood had changed. In the Bay Area, as likely elsewhere, there was a serious epidemic. Quite a few writers came down with serious. The forces of repression, this time with collared shirts and ivy league privilege, are always serious.  Inevitably the pervading anal neurosis took the fun out of everything.  Maybe the specimen issue was already dead on arrival by 1979 and was nothing more than the spark created when the like-minded high five, yet it was enough to exercise (exorcise) the vagaries of being a poet at the end of the decade with the crack of wit, the snort of snark, the glee of anarchy.  The subversive flame of mimeo resistance by the obscure and marginalized was kept alive into the eighties with Steven Lavoie and Pat Nolan’s Life Of Crime, Newsletter of the Black Bart Poetry Society, and Caveman, a similar scurrilous low tech production from NYC’s Lower East Side.  Now however blogs are the mimeo of the digital age so that anyone and everyone can post their opinion, right, wrong, or indifferent, and not get ink on their hands.  Present company not excluded.

Submitted to the membership by the Parole Officer 1/6/2020

 

 

 

 

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René Taupin’s André Salmon

André Salmon was important to the “Objectivists” because he, “like his friend Guillaume Apollinaire,” was among “the generation which devolved from Symbolism.” The methods which they “devolved” were similar to that of the “Objectivists.”

Symbolism discarded, André Salmon now wrote poetry which was neither dreamy nor sentimental, but a matter of neat and simple notation. He did not even employ the artifice of the current metaphor, and yet he did secure the validity of its detail and ornament. “Nominalistic poetry.”

Among the arguments that [Louis] Zukofsky gave [Ezra] Pound for including this translation of René Taupin’s review of André Salmon [in the “Objectivists” Issue of Poetry Magazine, 1931] was the assertion that it would reinforce what he considered to be his own position—nominalism. Although the “Objectivists” were not nominalists in the extreme sense of denying the existence of universals or of believing that all relations of word to thing are arbitrary, they were nominalists in the sense of distrusting vague phrases, general and abstract words, and discursive analyses and commentaries. Like Salmon, they wanted a poetry which presents the thing rather than qualifies or talks about it. Taupin wrote: “The metaphor of Baudelaire, or even the metaphor of Mallarmé, was primarily qualitative; it expressed what consistently poor adjectives could not express.” However, Taupin, on the one hand, felt that metaphor and image were essentially artifice. He asked: “Would the image no longer do?” and answered: “The real would.” He asked: “And language?” and answered: “Not metaphors, but the most immediate projections of the real which does not stop being real, even taking on, under this handling, plastic, decorative and emotive value.” The “Objectivists” believed, on the other hand, in the Emerson-Fenollosa-Pound tradition, that certain metaphors and images were of the essence of the real. At the roots of all language are metaphors which substantiate original perceptions which can be revitalized in poetry as thought, melody, and image. Nevertheless, the metaphor of the “Objectivists” was not the metaphor of Baudelaire and Mallarmé. It was interpretive rather than qualitative. Qualitative metaphor modifies but does not create perception of the fact. It is a subjective comment about a thing, “hallucination,” not perception.

Like Salmon, the “Objectivists” wanted a poetry the validity of which was secured by revelation of the real. Taupin wrote: “Nominalistic poetry is the synthesis of real detail, similar to the art of the primitives; and not of abstract or decomposed detail, like the impressionists.” The difference between real and abstract or decomposed detail, like the difference between objective and subjective Images as Pound defined them  is whether the detail emerges from the mind of the poet like or unlike his original generative experience. Details become abstract or decomposed as their accessibility to experience becomes attenuated by preconceived requirements and subjective distortions and associations.

Taupin argued for “the most direct contact,” approaching the purity of mathematical formula, the expressiveness of “scientific statement,” or newspaper reportage. “The newspaper,” he claimed, “is not so insipid as one might think when the news runs together and bears a definite imprint; it is only when the news inclines to be ‘literary’ that it loses its force of perfect notation. . . . The event therefore should be left to its integrality, to its maximum of the wonderful . . . The fact as it forms, that is not as it is cooked by the imperfect or predatory or sentimental poet.”

Regard for the event was characteristic of both Salmon and the “Objectivist.” Taupin wrote that “epic poetry is neither recitative nor narrative”; it is neither moralistic nor depends “on decorative qualities for its framework.” Epic poetry depends on “the poetic value of the event.” The epic poet does not feel the need for “making his heroes greater than their action.”

But this poetry is based on choice, on the imagination which apparently does not create but discovers, and gives the accomplished fact its maximum of the real: the esthetic of the reporter and the cinematographer—Eisenstein looking for the perfect Russian peasant woman and finding her after examining a thousand imperfect ones.

Salmon, like the “Objectivists,” consciously chose the details that best represent the wholes of which they are parts, the particulars which best evoke the experiences which involve them. The particulars of sincerity, therefore, can not be invented out of nothing. “The image,” Oppen wrote, “is encountered.”

The Nominalist poet allows details, by themselves, without analytic underpinning, to evoke the event. “The composition of the poem,” wrote Taupin, “is neither descriptive nor narrative”; its contents are not classified or schematized. Speaking of Salmon’s Prikaz, in which Salmon discovered “the value of the Russian revolution,” Taupin wrote:

It is obvious that the objects in this poem do not hold together in an association of ideas, but in their proper force of attraction.’ There is an art more than composition—even the composition of the impressionists; there is the attraction of the magnet, and the electric shock, the reality runs into reality by these brusgue transformations of shock: the esthetic of Eisenstein.

If drawing a constellation, a nominalist would present the stars as dots by themselves in their proper arrangement, leaving out the lines we imagine between them and the mythological figures we associate with them, knowing the reader would imagine the lines and figures for himself. This compositional method is the same as Pound’s ideogramic method—the presentation of synecdochic details or examples whose juxtaposition participates in certain lines of force—the magnet’s rose pattern in iron filings. It does not depend on either Symbolist or rationalistic “association of ideas.” If the idea or sentiment is valid, it will appear as a gestalt of the assembled details.

This “restitution” of ideas to an assembly of facts is “the essential distinction of the epic”:

Prikaz is this generation’s unique, intelligent attempt to give to the epic its rightful qualities, to find again the essential distinction of the epic, which is neither love nor hate but the restitution of these sentiments to a chain of facts which exist and the existence of which confers upon them the marvelous (le marveilleux—cf. Chateaubriand, le merveilleux chrétien) indispensable to all poetry.

Zukofsky echoed this concept of epic restitution in his “Program”: an “Objective” is “the direction of historic and contemporary particulars . . . a thing or things as well as an event or chain of events.” Zukofsky also made Taupin’s statement the epigraph to the “epic” section of An “Objectivists” Anthology and claimed in his preface that “poets should ultimately attempt” the epic restitution which Taupin accurately described.


Modigliani, Picasso, and Salmon

André Salmon is the forgotten Cubist writer though he outlived many of his early associates.  He shared quarters in the famous Bateau-Lavoir with Picasso and Max Jacob, and, along with Guillaume Apollinaire, was an early proponent of Cubism.  For more on the fascinating life of this poet, go to andresalmon.org 

Prikaz (“decree” in Russian) is Salmon’s unique epic poem from 1919 in sixteen juxtaposed fragments.  Each envisions the Russian Revolution from a specific point of view and without narrative continuity nor the reappearance of characters.

René Taupin was a French translator, critic, and academic who lived most of his life in the United States and is best known for L’influence du symbolisme français sur la poésie américaine (de 1910 à 1920), published in 1929, and for singling out William Carlos Williams, who at the time was receiving very little critical attention, by stating, “Peut-être  William Carlos Williams a-t-il composé la formule de l’art américain.” (Perhaps William Carlos Williams has himself composed the formula for American art.)


The entirety of Tom Sharp’s scholarly appraisal is available at The Objectivists with all the attendant footnotes and proper permissions.


Tom Sharp is the author of numerous books, including Spectacles from Taurean Horn Press, and a member of Seldovia Village Tribe.  He was a student of David Bromige’s at Sonoma State University and studied with Albert Gelpi at Stanford University, where he earned his Ph.D.  He is retired from IBM where he was a writer and programmer, and currently lives in Seattle.

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Years In The Making

 

When did you start writing Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life Of An American Genius and what was the inspiration?

Everything probably came together late spring 2008, or thereabouts.  I was putting the final touches to another novel that I’d played with for close to 30 years.  I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get it done, and maybe for that reason it was shaping up quite nicely.  At the same time I was writing a serial novel, some neo-pulp crime fiction, in monthly installments for the entertainment of a few local writers I know. I also had a couple of other pulp fiction projects that were in various stages of development.  So it wasn’t like I was looking for something to do. Yet in the middle of all that, at the end of a very manic day in which a lot of writing got done, I took a break.  I had been thinking about writing this novel, this kind of novel, for quite some time.  It’s the kind of novel a writer would normally be advised against writing.  Mainly because it is borderline narcissistic, like staring at yourself in the mirror, and depending on the light or your mood, you’re either admirable or pathetic. I’d had a germ of an idea at the back of my mind, but at that moment when I was contemplating the work I had just completed or left off, the organizing principle for the novel presented itself.  The beginning and the ending, in effect, occurred to me. 

Why did you write Ode To Sunset?

The motivation was personal, and largely sentimental.  I had the notion, the urge to memorialize friends, poets, who had died.  To accomplish that, without indulging in biography, I had to write about their element, which is poetry.  That which gave them joy and sorrow.  Because that’s what poetry does to poets, it makes them happy and it makes them sad.  In order to convey the joys and sorrows of being a poet, I needed an agent, a guide to the poetry world, a fictional sentience who is not quite Charles Baudelaire and not quite Charles Bukowski, and who goes by the name of Carl Wendt.  And it had to be irreverent, amusing, a satire.  My dear departed friends would expect no less of me.

Who is Carl Wendt suppose to represent?

Carl Wendt isn’t any one person or poet.  He is a kind of literary composite.  He has attributes of Charles Baudelaire in that he is a flaneur or dandy, an old school jazz hipster, and he works the margins of the literary scene as a freelance art and culture critic in a way that Baudelaire did.  Also like Baudelaire, and the modern American poet Charles Bukowski, his poetry offends the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeoisie.  He is an opportunist the way that Henry Miller is in Tropic of Cancer, always on the hustle, just getting by so that he can devote himself to his art. He’s also Bud Powell in Paris, marking time with his petite vin rouge. And I suppose, capitalizing on the Hugh Kenner quote that serves as one of the epigraphs for the novel, he can, at first glance, be seen as a charlatan, a jive ass. In this sense he is Coyote, the fool, the trickster. 

So is he the literary Everyman?

I think Wendt is characterized by his political incorrectness.  He’s white, male, heterosexual, he smokes and he’s a drinker. Most of which is no longer socially acceptable in the gentrified literary world.  He’s a social dinosaur heading for the bone yard of obsolescence.  That he’s a well known poet just complicates his inappropriateness. He is unaffiliated and eccentric, and embodies the antagonism between the sanctioned poets and the proscribed poets.

How closely does Carl Wendt resemble a typical poet? 

While I don’t see any poet as being typical, there are some very smart poets on whom Wendt is modeled and whose perspective and experience in defining the American canon has been overlooked, marginalized, because of the workshop industry. They are for the most part not associated with any institution, and are representative of the independent American poets who continue to be part of an antiestablishment community of innovative artists whose credentials are unimpeachable.  Many are ignored because they don’t fit into the current faddish mindset of the workshop mentality or they are keeping at arm’s length the intrusive desperation of fame and fortune.  Well, fame, mostly, by which I mean celebrity.  Everyone can do with a little fortune. 

Is Ode To Sunset autobiographical?

Heterographical, perhaps, in that it contains elements of biography, autobiography, literary history, aesthetic philosophy, social satire, improvisation, imagination, exaggeration and storytelling.  And it’s also personal in the sense that it is something I know a little about, having worked as a poet for fifty years.  Kind of like a retired cop who writes a crime novel.  And it allows me to talk about poetry, and poets, and find humor in otherwise weighty material. 

Do you think of Ode To Sunset as being representative of literature in the period in which you are writing? 

I would like to think that Ode To Sunset is unrepresentative of the period in which I am writing.  I am either ahead of my time or lagging far behind.  But wherever I am, I find it useful to be out of step in order to gauge my relative position in a world of obsessive scribblers.  As the Flann O’Brien quote that also serves as an epigraph implies, a novel is what the novelist says it is, much as Duchamp indicated that art is what the artist says it is.  This gives art and, by default, literature an incredible amount of freedom.  On the other hand, the playing field has been enlarged and leveled to such an extent that everything appears equal with everything else and this leads ultimately to a loss of perspective.  Not only is everything relative to everything else, but everything is subject to change without notice depending on any particularly focus directed at everything.

How do you reconcile being a poet and a novelist, and does either impact the other?

I always think of writing poetry as a house of cards.  At any point, the poem can be undermined by its own assumptions and come tumbling down.  Writing a novel is more brick and mortar work.  Even the wildest experimental prose is built from the ground up.  Poems, on the other hand, fall from the sky and because they are so ephemeral, they either are or aren’t.  Work in either form doesn’t necessarily influence the other outside of the fact that writing a novel demands so many more words and so, much more time.  A poem will sometimes appear as a piece, fully formed from the brow of the muse.  A novel is subject to revisions and storytelling codes, and follows a blueprint of sorts. Since I write mostly by hand in a notebook, the prose sketches take up a lot of room and energy compared to my poetry jottings.  Also the prose is almost immediately incorporated into the work in progress.  Poems can lie unattended in the notebooks for years. 

What would you say is your writing style?
The style I find myself favoring might be characterized as naked hard boiled pulp.  Not a lot of introspection and inner moaning, letting the events and development speak for themselves.  Wendt has much in common with wise cracking private eyes, and as a poet, he is the ultimate private eye, visionary, a loner, knight in tarnished armor, troubadour in the court of the muse.  If I were to give it the eight second Mamet pitch, I’d say that it is a cross between A Fine Madness and A Confederacy of Dunces with voiceover by George Steiner. 

How many hours do you write a day?

How long I can write depends on how long I can concentrate.  Sketching and plotting I do pretty much on the fly—it is a very spontaneous process and hardly seems to take any time at all.  The real work of arranging all the elements of the novel usually depends on whether or not I can face what I’ve written.  I have very poor work habits.  I do try to spend at least a couple of hours a day on the initial structuring of any prose project. Then when it looks like it’s shaping up to meet my expectations, I can spend the entire day thrashing it out, rereading, editing, rewriting until it reaches a finished state. 

You actually write by hand.  Why?
I do my thinking on paper and act on my thinking at the keyboard.  

At what stage in the writing process do you move from longhand to electronic media?

I normally sketch and take notes on a legal pad, a habit I developed when I first started writing.  At a certain point, later in the day or later in the week, I’ll review what I’ve written and take the time to transcribe it into the appropriate word file.  At this point the more objective writer, the word mechanic, takes over.  Writing by hand allows me the freedom of not filtering the language, not judging whether it is proper or grammatical, simply allowing the words to flow unconstrained and find their own level.  Once the handwritten text is transcribed I can look for the little surprises as well as the duds which I then use to my advantage, or not. 

Do you have any form of ritual preparation before writing?

I have a gamut of avoidance behaviors that I generally run through. 

Such as?

Oh, compulsive checking of email, surfing news feeds, doing just about anything that is not related to the job ahead.  Drinking more coffee.  Staring out the window.  Counting paper clips.  Rechecking email. That kind of thing. 

Do you revise?

Not in the sense that I have a preconceived idea of what I’m going to write and have to strictly abide by it.  What I end up writing either works or it doesn’t.  I never go into it thinking I’m going to write such and such, actually have a definition of such and such, but merely knowing I’m going to write at my whimsy and from that vectors and directions will follow.  Forward progress is determined by the obstacles encountered, the hurdles I’ve placed there, consciously or unconsciously, to challenge narrative complacency.  I have language somewhat imperfectly, a mixture of bad habit, laziness, inelegance, and bilingual confusion.  What you see is what you get, a shabby mix of savoir faire and nonchalance.  

Has writing this novel offered you any insights into the writing of a novel?  Anything that you didn’t know before you started?

I kind of knew this before, perhaps in theory, but it was proven to me in the actualization of this work of fiction.  We tend to think of the novel as a closed system with a beginning, middle, and an end.  In actuality there is time before the novel begins because the beginning is merely a point in history. There are also multitudes of middles, and time continues as history even after the narrative has concluded. The reality of the novel is never complete, as Joyce has taught us, and is always in the state of being, powered by ambiguity and tangent possibility. To insist on finality is merely a death wish.  It’s an example of narrative fallacy.  Narrative fallacy arises from attempts to make sense of the world.  Novelists employ narrative fallacy all the time. The world makes sense because of our unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance. 

Looking back on what you’ve brought forward as a fiction to its completion as a narrative, has it taken on a gravity greater than the sum of its parts?

Ode To Sunset works as an accrual of subject matter and its placement in layers rather than as a linear flight of fancy.  There is a narrative but it is directed by random twists and tilts outside and beyond causal progression.  The novel then becomes a simulacrum of the chaos of everyday life artificially constructed from language, sometimes as sleek streamlined prose and other times as stream of consciousness Rube Goldberg contraptions. It is chaos in search of equilibrium.  It is also childishly self-indulgent and self-centered, replete with petty hopes and fears, an all too human oscillation. There are eddies of confusion and breathtaking rapids as the accumulation of matter, physical and metaphysical, flows in its own serendipitous course. Prose requires absolutes, or the appearance of absolutes. Poetry can survive on ambiguities. 

How objectively can you view Ode To Sunset?

To begin with, it is nearly impossible to view with any consistent objectivity something that I worked on for over ten years. It is truly a love hate relationship. On the one hand, I see it as inane in the same way that Seinfeld and Friends were inane.  Ode To Sunset is similar in its apotropaic absurdity. And I either feel ok with that, the silliness, or I contrive somehow, either through rationalization or editing, to rectify it.  Poets are constantly on the verge of becoming anachronisms.  They barely made it into the 20th century.  How are they going to make it into the 21st century?  Ode To Sunset poses the question, “Are you sure you want to be a poet?”


Pat Nolan is the author of over a dozen poetry books, most recently So Much, Selected Poems Volume II, Notebook Keyboard (1990-2010) from Nualláin House, Publishers (2019).  He has also published two genre novels, a western and crime fiction, as well as the online serial fiction, Ode To Sunset, A Year In The Life of American Genius, available for perusal at odetosunset.com.  This interview with the author is condensed from a longer two part interview first published on the Ode To Sunset site.

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This Is How Legends Begin

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and, next to nature, Art;
I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
—Walter Savage Landor


Recollections, appreciations, musings, poems, photos, art gallery, and video celebrating the life of Keith Kumasen Abbott, 1944-2019, by Lani Abbott, Persephone Abbott, George Mattingly, Gloria Frym, Maureen Owen, Pat Nolan, Jerry Reddan, Brit Pyland, David Schnieder, Günter Ohnemus, Eugene Zander, Janine Ibbotson, Meredith Shedd-Driskel, and Clark Coolidge (via Steve Dickison).

To begin Pat Nolan reached back into his memory to try to pin down the year he first met Keith Abbott:
Sometime in ’65, maybe ’66, I think.  I was pouring beer and wine and making sandwiches at the Palace Bar & Grill on Cannery Row in Monterey, California.  It was one of those authentic bohemian hangouts with wire spool tables and mismatched chairs.  A jukebox featured forty-fives by Dave Brubeck or Miles and some of those new folksingers like Dylan and Baez.  It wasn’t exactly a tourist spot.  An occasional sightseer would wander in and then wander out.  It had the atmosphere of a waterfront dive thanks to the blatant drunkenness of many of its denizens.  I’d made the acquaintance of one of the patrons, a young woman by the name of Lani Hansen.  The first thing I noticed about Lani, in addition to her Norwegian comeliness, was how smart she was.  That made her dazzlingly attractive.  And I learned she was from the Seattle area.  As it turns out Lani and I also lived in the same rooming house located above the old Wing Chong Grocery Store then Antique Emporium on Cannery Row known as Good Old Roy’s (that’s another very long story) although I didn’t know that when I first met her.  Somehow the subject of my being a poet came up.  It usually does, even if I have to be the one to mention it.  Lani told me her boyfriend and high school sweetheart wrote poetry as well.  He was attending the University of Washington but would soon be coming to visit her.  Not long after that conversation I ran into Lani again and she introduced me to her boyfriend, Keith Abbott.

Keith’s passing in the early morning of Monday, August 26th, 2019 brackets my almost fifty-five year friendship with him and, of course, Lani.  That relationship was held together by a steady stream of correspondence for most of those five decades, often numbering two or three letters a month, long letters, half a dozen typed pages in fact were the rule rather than the exception, until predictably email rendered most communication  a memorandum. The letters were an ongoing record of our daily doings, what we were reading, what we were writing, the de rigueur literary gossip, our ever evolving aesthetic, hopes and dreams (as only authors can have), and, above all, our unfaltering dedication to our art.  Ours was a long distance friendship interspersed with visits whenever we had business that brought us in proximity to each other, the pleasure part of “business and pleasure.”  The last time we lived in the same neighborhood and socialized regularly was at the beginning of our friendship, in 1967, the year that both Keith’s daughter, Persephone, and my son, Bryan, were born.

Lani Abbott provides this time line for those early days:
1965.  Keith and Lani begin partnership and meet [Pat Nolan] while living on Cannery Row at Carney Good ol’ Roy’s with lots of local color, and find the groove that supports the next 50 years of life, love and work.
1965-66. Migration begins: Living in San Francisco Haight/Fillmore apartment across the street from Family Dog commune, riots, martial law, Kenneth Rexroth, and let’s have a baby.
1967. Baby daughter Persephone born in Monterey/Pacific Grove paradise.

Persephone Abbott now lives in the Netherlands where she teaches voice, sings opera, and writes.  She contributed this poem in her father’s memory.

Keith
Recollections from his Daughter

I am unable to remember when I met my father.
He told me he recalled the moment even though
The nurse thrust a substance upon his person
To keep him (well mustached at 23 years of age) from fainting
And falling on the hospital floor in a heap.
He admitted he liked both:
The baby and the intervention.
It was a good day.

I remember my father busy in the mornings writing something important.
Then he’d come out of his lair for coffee.
He was adored and admired for his charm and wit but he also drank coffee.
He ground the beans first.
It’s not a secret to making good coffee.

When I was a young girl, my father sometimes invited me
To go with him to the municipal dump.
I thought it was very exciting and I always said yes.
I also hung around him and his buddy Richard, who bought me
Steamed clams in Chinatown, but only occasionally so I
Didn’t miss too much school. But I
Tended not to go to school before lunchtime anyway.

My father and I enjoyed Amtrak together.
Multiple times.

My father taught me the best way to collect money at a golf club.
He’d never taken a short iron rod in a brown paper bag to a golf course,
But he thought I should know about golfers’ kneecaps
As part of my education.

When I was fourteen my father bought me a piano,
And, circumventing the school system, he found me private
French lessons. Following up on these two notions later:
I moved to Paris and studied music. Simple as that.

I once asked him what he thought about reincarnation.
He stared at me and did not utter a single word.
I believe he had a point.

The last thing he wrote me was a postcard of a stone frog. It said:
“Persephone I’ve got a place in the CHOIR!”
“I can’t wait!!” he added along with a large splat of ink at the end.
Then he croaked.

Tears ran into my coffee
Feeling salty, I took the dog to the park.
She likes the park and I do too.
She’s slow, selective of hearing, bow legged,
Benefits from poor eyesight and just like my premonition
I watched her slide from behind a favored tree down the slope
Enacting the part of a slow motion replay
Plonk into the canal, panic registering in her cloudy eyes.
It figures, I thought, that I end up jumping into an Amsterdam canal
The day my father is cremated,
Separate elements, each of us chasing a dog.


Pat Nolan again:Keith was responsible for my initiation into the world of underground avant-garde poetry.  Whalen, Snyder, O’Hara, Spicer were our buzz words and passwords.  At first I think ours was a kind of lopsided reciprocity.  I obviously got much more out of the friendship than perhaps he did.  He introduced me to his friends who were also writers.  At that time I had met very few writers who were of my generation or radical inclination.  Clifford Burke, Bill Bathurst, Steve Carey, and Richard Brautigan were all writers I met through my acquaintance with Keith.  Through him and Lani I also got to know, and claim as a dear friend, Michael Sowl, a Duluth transplant, graduate of the Defense Language Institute, and the model for Magic Eddy in Keith’s novel Gush, and Mordecai in Mordecai of Monterey.  I was also introduced to the Dunn Brothers, a couple of hillbilly conmen who populated his novel Gush as well as one of them being the model for Lee Melon in Brautigan’s A Confederate General In Big Sur.  I published Keith’s first book of poems, Dump Truck, and a few years later he returned the favor and published my first book of poems, Rock Me Roll Me Vast Fatality.

In the mid-sixties you could put everything I knew about poetry in a nutshell and still have ample room for the nut and a family of four.  Most of what I read back then was an odd assortment of academy sanctioned poetry, those long dead poets garnered from my insatiable reading, Rimbaud and Baudelaire in particular, and a chance discovery of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry.  But then, fresh from my discharge out of the military, I had yet to enroll in any college literature courses.  My friendship with Keith was also an apprenticeship in the day to day reality of being a poet—off the page, so to speak.  Keith had a clear vision of what it took to be a poet in the latter half of the 20th century.  He knew who to read and what to read.  Some of it was from an underground poetry world I didn’t even know existed.  With Keith as my virtual Virgil, I stepped into an undercurrent of intellectual ferment and passionately innovative literature.  Every little side stapled mimeographed one shot poetry magazine was read as if it contained the most urgent news. 

Lani’s time line continues with more adventures of the Abbott family:
1968-69.  Parenthood  in world of American trouble after moving back to San Francisco so Keith could finish his undergraduate degree at  SF State University,  riots,  violence outside Panhandle apartment relieved by small inheritance received by Lani who decides a change of nation is in order.
1969. Keith, an Irishman, finds himself in England, schedules a nervous breakdown and figures learning to write long fiction is the remedy.  The result is a novel called Dead Hippo, for which publishing prospects are captured in the title.  Keith’s wonderful mother, Gert, visits and tries to persuade Keith (and Lani) they need a career direction.  K & L are living in idyllic village and fail to comprehend a better direction then the footpath to the pub.  Gert offers to pay for graduate school so Keith can teach future layabouts in America. Keith accepts.
1969-71.  Keith completes MA at Western Washington State College in Bellingham with impromptu thesis on William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and the family escapes back to Monterey, where Keith finds a job as chair of the English Department at a high school in Salinas.  When he asks why the faculty are wearing dresses, he learns it is run by Dominican brothers.  He lasts a year.

Pat Nolan: I also benefited from Keith’s reading regimen.  Kenneth Rexroth, for his essays and translations of Reverdy as well as the Chinese and Japanese poets, Philip Whalen, for a Pacific Rim sensibility, ditto Gary Snyder, Williams of course, and O’Hara, for those wild mood swings customary to the process of creativity.   The foundational readings of my poetry autodidacticism were recommendations by Keith.  Some of the most significant books in my poetry reading experience were gifted to me by Keith: On Bear’s Head, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, and Second Avenue.

And it was Keith who tipped me to the networking potential of mimeo magazines. His Blue Suede Shoes was a vortex of New York poets on the West Coast.  It was enough to make James Schuyler sit up and take notice, as he remarks in his March 1971 letter to Trevor Winkfield: Have you ever exchanged magazines with Keith Abbott? He is, or was, Blue Suede Shoes. I like a lot of his poems—sort of West Coast Padgett, with a lot of the dilution that might imply—also someone he’s published named Pat Nolan, who’s a little closer to being a West Coast Larry Fagin; or perhaps is to Abbott what Fagin is to Padgett? Only different. . . .” (Just The Things, Selected Letters of James Schuyler Turtle Point Press, 2004).  Following Keith’s example, I started my own mimeo poetry mag, The End (& Variations Thereof).  In 1973, Keith Abbott and I were the only two California poets to receive a grant from the New York-based Poets Foundation.

Lani again: 1972-73. Keith supports Lani’s hilarious idea of finishing her undergraduate degree and even more hilarious idea of going to graduate school.  She completes the former at UC Davis, where Keith spends the year drinking sherry in the pool.  To give him something to do, Lani persuades him to write some terrible poems which she submits for a statewide poetry contest.  Lani wins and becomes California’s student Poet Laureate for the year.  To Keith’s relief, she turns down a Regent’s Fellowship to stay in Davis.  The family moves to Berkeley where they move into a shared house with old friend Darla Hilliard, who is soon to go to Nepal to be the first to radio collar snow leopards. Lani just thumps along in grad school until she figures out life is much more rewarding in theater where she works for the next decade.  Keith recognizes the Bay Area as his natural territory and sets about matching his living environment to his imagination. 

George and Lucy Mattingly were the first to publish Keith’s novels, Gush (1975) and Rhino Ritz (1979), from their Blue Wind Press.  They also published a selection of Keith’s poems, Erase Words (1977).  Keith, Lani. Persephone, George and Lucy were neighbors for much of the Abbott family’s time in that nebulous East Bay region known as the Berkeley-Albany-Solano triangle.

I met Keith Abbott in spring 1974 at a poetry reading by Stephen Rodefer at San Francisco State University. The poetry scene then was hot. Even the unknowns could draw audiences of dozens, and name poets, hundreds — Ginsberg and Snyder, thousands. There were hundreds in this audience: a full auditorium.  I was sitting near the back (in case escape became necessary). Rodefer’s poems were full of obscure jokes, puns, and outrageous eroticism, so I couldn’t resist laughing, encouraging, and commenting.  At some point I noticed there were a couple of serious-looking gatekeeper types glaring at me. One of them wagged a finger, and then put it in front of his lips. Shut up, in other words, this is Serious Stuff. “But it’s too—” I started to say, when a large hand patted me on the shoulder & the guy attached to it said “—too goddamned funny!” The gatekeeper’s face twisted like paper crumpling. I turned around and saw Keith Abbott behind me, smiling his big Buddha smile — and chortling. He finished my sentences, my jokes, even my laughter — and my drinks sometimes if I wandered too far.

The first Saturday morning after Lucy and I started renting the front bedroom in Lani and Keith’s faded pink stucco house at 1146 Sutter Street in Berkeley, we were awakened by loud banging. Pulling on my jeans, I walked down the hall and saw Keith, in his cool weather gardening clothes holding a 55-gallon metal garbage can with one hand & banging on it with a heavy-gauge steel garden rake. Whack. Whack. Bang. Bang.  From their 8-year-old daughter Persephone’s room came a blood-curdling wail. “No! No! You can’t!” And Keith barking back, “Yes! Yes! I can! Everything off the floor in 5 minutes or—” — he pointed a work glove at the garbage can. I peeked into Persephone’s room: clothes, books, toys, bedding, her whole life in a layer half a foot deep.

“Saturday morning on Sutter Street,” said Keith, “hope you and Lucy slept well!”

Later, after the wailing and banging stopped, I saw Keith on the couch, mustache beaded with hot black Berkeley coffee. Looking up from a film star biography he was reading, he said “Amazing how the author thinks we’re going to believe that all these things actually happened during his one life.”

In August 1974, Lani Abbott was readying for a solo trip to the UK. Lucy was about to move to London for an Antioch College semester abroad. I had just gotten a check from H.U.D. for vacating my $60-a-month apartment in Iowa City, Iowa (in a block slated for “urban renewal” a.k.a. bulldozing). And a check from a writers’ aid foundation — to speed my recovery from the breakup with the last of my Scorpio ice maiden girlfriends (aid I no longer needed but was happy to get).

“Time for a PARTY!” Keith announced. Pulling out his calligraphy pen, he created an announcement postcard for

THE HAPPY BAD LUCK & GOING AWAY PARTY.

He invited fifty or sixty friends, and passed the hat for cheap wine and snacks.

The day of the party, Lani and Keith’s daughter Persephone went to a friend’s house for a sleepover. Keith and I took the pickup downtown to buy a new stereo — the one material possession (besides pot and cheap wine) essential to every hippie household at the time.  Then off through the tunnel to Joseph’s Liquors on Solano Avenue to buy 6 gallons of Grower’s red wine. At $3.79 a gallon, this particular wine “had never seen a grape” according to Keith’s friend in the wine business, Peter Brehm.  Lani (easily the best home cook I have ever known) made a bean dip and an aïoli to go with a beautiful spread of fresh vegetables and breads — the polar opposite of the low-rent beverages on the card table.

Al Green, Weather Report, The Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson, and Aretha Franklin on the brand-new tune box & we were ready to party — all afternoon, into the evening, and most of the night.  As people began to trickle in, I saw Lani and housemate Darla Hilliard gazing at a print on the wall near the kitchen: a male model cropped from lower back to upper thigh, wearing skin-tight neon-striped underwear. “You’ll see a lot of that in London,” said Darla. “Umm…yes,” said Lani, stirring her glass of white vermouth on the rocks. Darla’s tall boyfriend Victor came in, holding a greasy piece of Honda innards from the engine rebuilding project that had blocked the garage for months.  Darrell Gray lurched by with a tumbler of brandy. “Have you seen Patty? Can’t find Patty (his girlfriend Pat O’Donnell). He left, opening closet doors, looking out every window, looking for Patty. (A couple hours later I had to rescue Darrell, who had wandered face first into the hedge and was too drunk to extricate himself.) By 3 a.m. most of the guests were passed out on the floor. Darrell was explaining Schopenhauer to the cat, which was cowering under the card table. “Almost time to send my veins out for dry-cleaning,” said Keith, pulling on his mustache. He smiled and shuffled off to bed.

In January 1975, I was trying to organize poems I had written since 1969 (which were eventually published as Breathing Space). I had no clue which to include or how to order them. Keith came by one afternoon with a 6-pack of Liberty Ale, opened a couple and offered to look at the manuscript. A few days later he brought back the typescript — re-ordered and with notes pencilled on every page. He had categorized each poem as Big Talk, Reality George,* You’re Kidding, or Beauty Secrets.  “Don’t give the audience a chance to get bored and give up on you — which they might if you put too many similar-sounding poems in a row. Mix up the categories. And start with a work that teases the reader about where the trip is going to go.” Everything he did made perfect sense. He told me he found it much easier to edit or arrange someone else’s writing.

(*Reality George: the nickname given to me by Allan Kornblum in 1970.)

Bang bang bang bang on the door of the half bedroom Karl Kardel charmer Lucy and I lived in that spring of 1975. Rubbing my eyes sitting up naked in the mattress on the floor of the carpeted loft. Bang bang bang bang. “Up and at ’em, George!” For a guy whose writing and illustrations could be so subtle and quiet, Keith could be really loud, really big, a huge presence. He let himself in and scanned our LP collection and grocery list while I pulled on jeans, boots and long-sleeved flannel shirt. Stamping impatiently. “Time to get the money!”

That day was one of many when I did trash hauling, moving, and yard work with Keith. The splintery sideboards on his old pickup were spray-painted with the words “GTM.” Customers were told this stood for “Good Times Movers,” but the acronym actually stood for “Get The Money.” I was one of many friends who worked with Keith when funds were low — and in mid ’70s they were often really really low.

Those were the days Gloria Frym remembers:
Keith Abbott was a dear pal. We met in the late 1970s. When he and Lani moved away from, as he would say, “the old country” to teach at Naropa, he wrote and called every couple of months, assiduously keeping up our friendship even when he was in the early throes of his illness.  Lani and he always invited me and other summer writing faculty over for lunch or dinner, when we managed to squeeze in the latest lit gossip despite our increasingly heavy schedule.  Boulder lost three pieces of my heart when Lucia wasn’t there anymore, then Bobbie Louise, now Keith.  Life has grown a lot less interesting and certainly less charming without that triumvirate. Here, anthologized by Andrei Codrescu in Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970 is one of my favorite Keith Abbott poems:

Good News Bad News
                           after Apollinaire
in memory of Ted Berrigan

An old-fashioned sketchbook
With plenty of young women
Old wine the refined taste
Turns to restoring youth

Here the joy also heard
In the soft early songs
And this charm still enough
To save the new for an aged brain

To have old books past friends
Enjoy the ripe days Autumn
Here all the pleasures except
The one which always astonishes us

The one we call love
For this alone the world breathes
By this everyone knows the way out
The way in night & day

To live and die
Good news bad news


Pat Nolan: Keith and I traveled to New York City to read at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s in the fall of 1978 and met some of the poets we had been publishing in our respective magazines, both which were no longer active by then.  We spent quality time with Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, and family, and had a jolly reunion with our old West Coast pal, Steve Carey.  We also met Ron Padgett and Maureen Owen who were at the helm of the Poetry Project in those days.

As Maureen recalls:Back so many years ago I can’t recall exactly, Pat Nolan invited me to join himself, Keith Abbott, and Michael Sowl in the writing of a Renga, a linked poetry.  I loved the idea of collaborating and was an ardent fan of Japanese poetry and so joined in. I knew Keith’s work and had met him at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project (now The Poetry Project) where he was giving a reading.  Those were the days before email and we sent our lines to each other by regular post.  And so of course our lines had to be accompanied by a long letter or a long letter with our lines embedded.  Vast expanses of time passed as we received the next lines and letters from one another.  Often hand written, sometimes typed, our letters languidly trotted the oncoming link to our eager mailboxes.  Keith’s letters were always a delight and full of literary news, family news, news of his latest writing, and sometimes a dynamic swoop of calligraphy.  We wrote our Rengas over many years and many letters.  From Michael in Minnesota, Pat in California, Keith in Colorado, and me on the east coast, our linked verse trekked and crackled.

Later I had the pleasure of living near Keith in Colorado and seeing him often on the Naropa campus where we were both teaching.  I remember delicious and fun lunches at Lani and his home during the Summer Writing Program at Naropa.  Their hospitality and lovely gardens, a living Zen.  Keith was always bigger than life, brash in an open and lighthearted, bighearted manner; always welcoming and generous in his life and in his art.  Besides teaching writing at Naropa, he taught a fabulous course in Calligraphy.  A gorgeous piece he created for me hangs over my desk right now.  Mu, Void, in blackest ink forever liquid, it is moving perfection created by the brush of a master.  A huge presence, now forever missed, but never missing.

Günter Ohnemus, Keith’s German translator, provides this account at their friendship and how they met.
In the old days—1982 or 1983—when the world around me was full of love and laughter and a future other people could only dream of, my wife and I met George and Lucy Mattingly at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  We went to dinner together and we laughed all night . . .well, not all night, because they stayed at a hotel in Aschaffenburg and had to catch a late train that took them there. But the echo of this night and this laughter is still with me. In these years laughter was so much around that sometimes we woke up laughing.

In 1984 (which was the next year or the year after the next year) we visited them in Berkeley, and one night they introduced us to Keith (“Ursus Abbotticus,“ as George called him. “He’s as strong as a bear.”).  In the sushi restaurant, where we had dinner, Keith mentioned  a manuscript that he held back because he wanted to sell it to the movies.  I asked him if I could see it, and a couple of weeks later I took it back with me to Germany.  The title was Racer.  A story about an unruly boy.

I was ravished when I read the book, Keith and I agreed that a German version of the book would not diminish its Hollywood prospects. I sent the manuscript to my publisher, Benno Käsmayr of Maro’s, and the book was published in October 1987.  So there was an American book in German that never existed in English as a book.  It stayed in print for two decades. As far as I know it was never published in English.

I translated four of his books, and for a long while Keith and I were pretty close, we went on a reading tour with one of his publishers, his books were highly praised in Germany (though never a financial success), and translating them was a great joy for me. It didn’t feel like work.  It felt like living, it was life.

We had a falling-out some years ago, hadn’t had contact over all these years, which is a pity, but that’s how things go sometimes. Talk about financial success – I remember what Keith once said on one of our walks in Munich: “If I can be for just one person what Ray Charles was to me, then spending my life as a writer wasn’t in vain.”

We hadn’t had contact, I said. But we had some sort of contact through his daughter Persephone.  Last year I translated her first novel, A Closely Knit Web, from the manuscript.  So far there is no English edition.  Like Racer it was published by Maro. Last year, 2018: Ein rasch gesponnenes Netz.  So, like her father before her . . . Ah, well, I seem to run in the family.

Lani recalls the years from 1973-1994:  Keith finally lands a long tenure in the Bay Area literary scene.  He publishes a succession of poetry, novels, and short fiction with small press publishing including Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press and George Mattingly’s Blue Wind Press.  He cultivates what he considers a well rounded working writer’s profile: working widely in poetics, including classic forms, prose and sound poetry, and the collaborative Japanese form, Renku, with fellow poets Pat Nolan, Maureen Owen and Michael Sowl. Inspired by Phillip Whalen, he trains in western and Asian calligraphy to create visual poetry.  He writes long and short fiction, works in journalism both as feature writer and editor.  While serving as fiction editor for The Berkeley Monthly, he champions and befriends the writer Lucia Berlin.  He explores dramatic writing, collaborating with actors and directors at the Berkeley location of the Drama School London and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and he workshops a one act play at the Magic Theatre.  His audience expands internationally and his work is published in Germany, France and the U.K.  He learns to enjoy public performance of his work.

Brit Pyland remembers first meeting Keith:
I was introduced to Keith by our mutual friend John Veglia. John and I brought a bottle of Cabernet to Keith’s home in Albany, CA for a fun afternoon. We found many areas of keen mutual interest, including poetry and Zen. Keith’s Zen and calligraphy teacher Kobun Chino roshi had been one of my first teachers when I was just starting Zen practice and study at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Kobun was very kind, patient, and friendly. He was generous with his time and helped me with sitting posture. We took a long hike above Tassajara and downstream. On the way back he paused below the tall Sycamore in wonderful dappled light and shot an imaginary arrow at a high bird. His big smile indicated that he had hit his mark.

Another time when leading a demonstration of Zen archery on a high bluff at Esalen retreat center, he shot an arrow way out into the Pacific and with a big grin turned and remarked “Bullseye!”

Keith was Kobun’s assistant in calligraphy classes at Naropa Institute. Keith refined his calligraphy and brush art under Kobun’s guidance and became a fine artist.

Our friendship grew and was nourished by close mutual friends, including Zenshin Philip Whalen, Denis Kelly, and George and Lucy Mattingly. Philip and I shared a flat in Noe Valley in S.F. and hosted a small informal sitting group with tea or breakfast after zazen on Friday mornings—just a few people, including  a few of Phil’s writer friends. I later became Philip’s assistant when he became abbot at Hartford Street Zen Center and Maitri Hospice, doing mainly administrative work.

I took Keith and Lani to visit Philip when his health was failing and was living at SF Zen Center’s Hospice on Page Street, very upbeat farewell.

Keith and I shared writing and art over the years, sometimes exchanging correspondence of assumed comic personae. We also confided aspects of our Zen practice to encourage one another.

I am very grateful that we were able to speak on the phone on number of lucky occasions when he was not suffering from aphasia and was very clearheaded and in good spirits before he passed.

Keith is very much alive in my memories.

Brit also provided this account of Keith’s ordination in his own words:

At age 69 I decided it was time to know what the Japanese characters said on the rakusu I have been wearing since 2002 and so I commissioned Kaz Tanahashi to translate my teacher Kobun Chino’s Japanese on the rakusu silk backing.  Know that a kashaya is the Buddha body, Buddha mind. It is called a robe of emancipation, a field of benefaction. It is called a robe of patience, a robe beyond form. It is called a robe of compassion, a robe of the Tathagata, a robe of unsurpassable, complete enlightenment.

June 12th, 2002, Auspicious day of Ordination
Houn Kobun
For Lay-person Mugaku Jikido
to maintain this

(The passage is from Dogen, p. 146, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye) translated by Kaz Tanahashi.

Note: Mugaku Jikido was my formal Buddhist name.  Before my ordination Kobun translated this for me as: “No knowledge / preconceptions on the clear / straight path.”  He died after this event, on July 26, 2002.

The history of my rakusu goes like this. This formal name resulted some months earlier from what happened at the end of the incredibly intense dokusan that confirmed my ordination. Once my ordination and its details were arranged, I wanted to commission Kobun to brush a calligraphic version of a phrase, Mugaku No Koto that I had found in D.T. Suzuki. In that context this phrase was the highest praise for a Zen calligraphy: “A thing / matter / event of no learning.” i.e. the brushwork showed no preconceptions whatsoever: it just was what it was.  But because the intensity of Kobun’s dokusan exhausted me I could not remember the last two words No Koto.  So I only said “Mugaku” and that there were two more words.  Kobun dismissed my distress with a wave of his hand and said, “And that [mugaku] will be your first Buddhist name!”  He also added that now he had the burden of thinking up the rest of my Buddhist name before my ordination; I only had to sew a rakusu.  Such was his humor.

During my ordination in June 2002 Kobun announced my “Mugaku Jikido” title for the assembled monks and friends. But, he immediately followed that with: “But we will not call him by that name!  His name will be Kumasen (i.e. Bear Sage).”  When we co-taught the contemplative brush class together at Naropa Kobun had noticed that my habitual actions displayed some of that nature. On December 27, 2013 after learning what the rakusu said, I decided to research jikido and found this:

In Zen Buddhism, it is the job of the jikidō (直堂?) to run the zendo according to the rules prescribed by the teacher, and maintain the zendo’s schedule. The jikido makes a commitment to run every regularly scheduled sitting and each monthly sesshin. In Sōtō the jikido is the one person, other than the Teacher, who faces outward in the zendo instead of facing the wall. This is because the jikido’s practice cannot be simply private or inward, but must always face outward, aware and responsive to what’s going on in the zendo. The jikido’s job is not just to facilitate the functioning of the zendo, the jikido embodies and exemplifies practice as functioning. And that is the functioning of no-self – of the forgotten self – that responds to each thing in turn, performs each function in turn without a thought of right or wrong or how am I doing or how do I look doing it.

So for me to be a “Mugaku Jikido” means that among other duties I am the caretaker of the no-self zendo, basically running what I call Mu Shin Zendo routines: Nothing Doing Doing Nothing  (my translation into American English of Mu Shin).   I believe that I had been maintaining those duties for Kobun during our two contemplative brush workshops, and since 2002 in my daily life.


Janine Ibbotson studied brush with Keith.  Here is her appreciation on her website: https://janineibbotson.com/blog/2019/9/3/appreciation

Jerry Reddan, master printer and publisher at Tangram Press, recalls meeting Keith in a short note addressed to Pat Nolan:
I’m pretty sure I met Keith at Serendipity [Books] in the late 70’s.  As Tangram was getting started in ’87 I’m sure Keith was seeing some of my projects.  It was not until ’87 that I printed Skin And Bone followed by broadsides over the years.  As I recall it was Keith who provided you with my address, so it’s all his fault, what a pleasure.  When he and Lani moved to Longmont all correspondence was delivered via USPS, often very funny.  On occasion when he was in the Bay Area researching Whalen, Kerouac material in The Bancroft [Library] he would stay with us for a few days.  There was lots of fun conversations about his teaching students more interested in the movie version than the book itself. Always in good humor even with his mobility problems.  We’ll miss him.

Lani’s time line concludes: 1994-2013: In 1994 he accepts a faculty position at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado, transferring his writing energy to the next generation through his students.

In the early 90’s Keith made a few exploratory trips to Colorado before moving the family to Longmont.  In Denver he stayed with the artist Ivan Suvanjieff, the model for Chili Palmer in Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, and editor of the literary magazine The New Censorship, in Ivan’s art loft in the pre-gentrified Wyandot Corridor.  Eugene Zandler, also a resident of the loft remembers Keith this way:
One of my first memories of Keith is the evening that I awoke from my usual swoon to find thick gray smoke coming under the door of my rooms, which was close to the kitchen, for any readers who are unfamiliar with the premises of The Lodo Art and Boxing Team.

I entered the twilight kitchen to find the apparent source of the smoke to be heavy skillets on the gas range top. No one was there; whatever substance was being smelted had also been removed.  I returned to my digs, probably after ascertaining that the north stairway was useable in case of necessity. Alchemical transmutation being such an uncertain process.

Keith had concluded that the perfect temperature for scorching pasta was well above the smoking point of the best cooking oils.  Say 500 F.  He was not yet a resident in the LAABT to the best of my memory.

I did later speak with him briefly numerous times.  He made jokes; one often felt that some cataclysm or great awakening was at hand.  Some force, following him about, waiting for him to prybar open some awareness into the ordinary understanding. I cannot though remember any specific words he said.

Later [Ivan] gave me a copy of one of his comic novels. Unique and unforgettable scenes in that.   Where was/is Hollywood?   Some hapless bad guy unwittingly submerged in semi-poisonous smelt (while romantically engaged, I think) and then the whole exterior wall of the bungalow bedroom tactically dropped like a toilet seat, ker-bang,  the better for retribution and photography.  And this scene in what is now the heart of Silicon Valley, before the ascension of those unworthies. A pig rooting away under a carpet. Etc. His writing was bitingly direct; the man himself behind an impenetrable caul.

I intended to catch his act as a Professor at Naropa, but never got around to that.   I suspected some paradox, some revelation.  I hope he had success and peace.  These are mostly, of course, not anecdotes. Keith was very funny, in a dangerous sort of way, but the details slip away.

Meredith Shedd-Driskel, an old friend of Keith and Lani’s from the early 70’s and Lani’s grad school days in Berkeley provided these pictures from a visit to Longmont in 2005.

Keith with his namesake, baby Keith Mattingly, and holding his own baby picture

George Mattingly:
Keith and I were best friends for many years, and only gradually lost that closeness when he and his wife Lani moved from the Berkeley area to Longmont, Colorado, so that he could take a job as professor in the Writing Department at Naropa University in Boulder.

The day I met him was one of the best days of my life.  The day they moved was one of the saddest days of my life.

I hate talking on the phone, but Keith loved talking on the phone, and we talked often in the decades after they moved to Colorado. In the beginning, Keith finished my sentences. In the end, I finished his.

Pat Nolan: Keith was born on February 2, 1944, Groundhog Day.  Groundhogs are also sometimes referred to as “little bears” thus the importance of the name Kobun gave him, Bear Sage. That date is also James Joyce’s birthday which Keith was never shy in pointing out.  I was born September 3, 1943, approximately six month before Keith which for me had some odd mystical significance.  Although we often joked that we were the poetry twins and there was no telling us apart (on the page), we were actually quite different in personality, for certain, and in our ideas on how best to represent the world, our world, through poetry.  Yet in our love of literature, in particular the art of poetry, we were joined at the hip, informed by the dialogue we shared for nearly fifty five years.

I admired Keith’s poetry immensely—it was a showcase for his intelligence.  Keith’s instincts about the art of writing were always very sophisticated and informed.  His perception and comprehension had an unerring depth that revealed an understanding of the basics, the root of what was necessary to continue in our craft and sullen art while maintaining our authenticity.  Authenticity is the key word here.  It is a quality we valued in the poets we both admired and one to which we aspired in our own work.  I can honestly say that my education and development as a poet owes an enormous debt to Keith Kumasen Abbott. He was my oldest friend and I was his oldest student.

Steve Dickison shared this video clip of Clark Coolidge reading one of Keith’s poems

David Schnieder, another Buddhist friend and the author of the Philip Whalen biography, Crowded By Beauty, remembers Keith this way:
Keith stole the show at the event where I first saw him. It was not an easy show to steal, being the large, formal, memorial reading in San Francisco for a recently-dead Ted Berrigan. Keith read a story, one with several protagonists and a few interweaving plots, most involving serious consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants, and the resulting misadventures. Gentle, self-deprecating, hilarious, the tale provided much-needed humor—relief for a crowd uniformly upset by Berrigan’s sudden death.

As Keith and I got to know one another, it became clear that we shared many interests, a wide, motley spectrum of them, stretching from poetry and fine prose and bibliophilia, to graphic arts to Zen Buddhism to gardening to professional football to home-made beer…. the Pacific Northwest…calligraphy, Asian and Roman….the poetry, calligraphy, Zen and the person of Philip Whalen.

In most fields, Keith was senior, more knowing. He grew up in the Northwest; I’d only gone to school there. I watched football; he’d played it, alas. (His legs never recovered.) He was an accomplished writer. Keith also drew beautifully. With regard to Zen though, I was senior. I’d also practiced calligraphy longer. Not unconnected to these points, I lived for years at a time in daily contact with Philip Whalen.

The intercourse between Keith and me was never competitive though; our business was exchange — tips, knowledge (rumor would do), techniques. When I began to work on Whalen’s biography, Keith stood right there, his offering personal stories, texts, referrals, letters, essays, and hours of bright conversation. It is perhaps an under-appreciated fact of his oeuvre that Keith had himself written a fine memoir/critical biography of a poet, Downstream from Trout Fishing in America, about Richard Brautigan.

“Use legal folders,” he advised, on organizing unruly correspondence. “Or shallow boxes.” It was exactly right; it moved things forward, ordering both physical and mental space. This tiny example is evidence of much larger forces in Keith.

“For the 100th time, bodhisattva not Buddha,” Philip Whalen wrote in his journal one day. He seems to be saying that the aim of the Buddhist path is not an (imaginary) immobile state of Buddha-like royal ease and chill, but rather continuous engagement with the world’s troubles, against obstructions to that path. Classically, the bodhisattva conducts her-or-himself following the six paramitas, the six perfections. Foremost and fundamental of these is generosity.

Circling back to Berrigan, Ted is famously to have remarked that when someone dies, they go from your outer life to your inner life. So it should be no surprise that I now meet Keith in mind, where he continues his very sincere way along the bodhisattva path, practicing generosity. And the others: ethics, patience energy, meditation, and wisdom.

Lani provides this account of Keith’s final day:
And here is one of the many miracles that completed his life.  It was not until Saturday evening that I finally focused on Keith’s Zen.  I contacted the temple in Boulder with which Keith had had loose affiliation, and whose Sensei was a friend of Keith’s.  An ordained monk named Martin Mosko.  Martin, as I understood, no longer lived in Colorado and would be unavailable to chant for Keith.  However, looking for advice I sent an anonymous general message to the temple’s website.  Then I discovered that the temple was going into sessin the following morning for a week and I probably wouldn’t get a response.

Not so.  Early Sunday morning I got a call from Martin who was in town and immediately understood the message I sent was about Keith.  I explained what had happened and accepted that he would not be available. Oh no, said Martin, Keith is important and he requested permission to come that day to the hospice to chant for him.

And that was the release Keith needed to end his suffering.  The hospice nurse told me that when she came to attend to him later that evening, he was making a humming sound.  Are you chanting? she asked.  Yes.

Hours later, at 2AM I got a call from the nurse that Keith’s condition was finally changing.  I arrived at the hospice by 2:30, and he took his last breath at 3:15.

The miracle?  Martin was in town to lead the memorial sessin for Keith’s teacher, Kobun Chino Roshi, who had ordained him.

We brought Keith’s body home, dressed him in his robes and Martin and the monks came Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in their ceremonial robes to chant during the 3 day vigil.

Zen is mysterious.  A couple of months ago Keith had a moment when he was able to speak a bit about his experience of dementia.  I asked him what Zen meant to him in his affliction.  His answer came from deep within.  He could no longer speak coherently, read his own work, or identify the day.  Unable to reason, he still knew the answer.

He quoted:  water sees water.

It was a privilege to be his partner.


After Deiryu                                                 

All Buddha’s have
snail nature 

Master & disciple
in a slippery line 

Training hard
for the grand perhaps 

inside the vast mishaps 

nothing stops

 —Keith Kumasen Abbott


Keith’s Art & Calligraphy
Keith Kumasen Abbott was a practitioner of the three perfections in art: painting, poetry, and calligraphy.  It is something he fell into easily as it coincided with his avid interest in Asian literature, particularly the Chinese and the Japanese, as well as his drift toward contemplative practice, largely as a result of his reading, and his down home Northwestern temperament, of course.  As with a core of Pacific Rim writers and artists, especially in the postwar era, the cultural transmission lines have been long established and the discourse is in progress.

Keith’s art reached a peak around the turn of the century with showings of his work in multiple gallery venues nationally and internationally as part of a group show in Shanghai.  It reveals an additional aspect to his creative sensibility in bringing a discerning contemporary eye to the practice of yet another ancient tradition.  Writing and painting have different names but the same body, the Chinese say, as well as employing the same instrument, the ink brush.  They enact a fundamental unity through a shared lexicon of brush strokes.  As in writing, painting utilizes space (the page, the canvas) as the matrix through which forms emerge and bring about an interchangeable sublimity so that in effect word has presence and presence speaks.  This is the language of Keith’s art.



Post Script: Last September (2018) Keith, in the prescient genius of his later decline, sent me the photo at the head of this post.  Actually, Lani sent it to me at Keith’s insistence. Of the four men shown in the photo I only recognize Keith (on the right)—the others, friends, writers, I would assume, taken in the mid-sixties on Cannery Row.  He captioned it with a handwritten note: “Hey—here’s a PIX to get your BACK BRAIN to work on. The right hand of smoker Keith—But what he holds in his left hand appears to be a home rolled kind—the right hand is drawing out a lighter. Presumably a cop car has just passed by and we ALL are acting Non-sha-lot, a lot!”  Keith thought I would know what to do with it.

Thanks is due to everyone for their contributions and encouragement in this memorial project for an old friend and a significant light in American art and letters.  As George so aptly reminded me, particularly in the world of literature, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. . . .”

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