Thursday, September 28, 2006


Poet and novelist Will Alexander performed a series of what he calls “vertiginous equilibria” on piano last night at Mills Hall on the Mills College campus in Oakland. To those familiar with the energetic disjunctions of Will’s surrealist texts, his approach to the piano might seem surprising. While it consists of solo improvisation, and so remains in some sense related to surrealist automatism, dissonance is avoided and the notes (chords are absent in Will’s playing) are produced according to harmonic patterns. Indeed, Will’s piano playing engages in a mystical exploration of the scale. (To adopt the title of his first book, Will as a pianist remains a “vertical rainbow climber.”) Temporality is dissolved within a non-cumulative progression of notes: chance is not abolished but allowed to flourish within what seems like a single shimmering drop of sound. Comparisons can be made between Will’s pianism and the compositions of Gurdjieff, or those of American minimalists such as Terry Riley. The maximalism of Will’s poetry thus undergoes, in the minimalism of his piano playing, a sudden reversal of polarity. Here, there is no return to the “authorizing cadence” of tonalism, but a discovery of the destabilizing space between adjacent notes, which may be graphically located between the contingency of the alphabet (“A”) and the word “Tonalist” itself.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Tonalist Notes

At Laura's request, I'm posting the introduction I did at the Artifact reading series on Saturday, September 16th for Garrett Caples with Andrew Joron and Justin Sirois. All three readers were great and this introduction was the first of two "Absinthe Intros" of the night. Enjoy:

When I first saw The Garrett Caples Reader from Black Square Editions, I thought Garrett Caples was another blind spot in my own reading history. “Who is Garrett Capels?” I thought. How did I miss this guy? Then I found out it was his first book. I fell for the joke and, so, asked the question again in a slightly different way: Who the FUCK is Garrett Caples?

At a reading at Canessa Park soon afterward (in 2000), I was met with this poet who looked about 14. Though he giggled nervously through his reading, his poetry was crisp, playful and biting, but also lotus-scented. The myth began to grow.

And when I read The Garrett Caples Reader for the first time—I’ve read it many times since—I found an iconoclast without a trace of Victorian limitations that, with his libertine erotic surrealism, was willing to take on anyone or any thing. I found poems with lines like “We were looking for a place on a street not named Euclid: where lightning unzips the sky or two lips open like an eye.” And I found essays that, like a carnival sideshow, covered a range of the freaky and bizarre and had titles like “Humped by Barrett Watten” or “Celebrity Wettings,” a piece that examines the sexual fetish of well-known people caught in moments of incontinence.

I began to see Garrett as a kind of Tristan Tzara for 21st century America, an antidote to the messianic death dreams of our times. Tzara’s words helped me understand Caples and his work: “The individual ... lives poetry every moment that he affirms his existence. The poetic image itself, as much as experience, is not only the product of reason and imagination, it is valid only if it has been lived. Every creation is therefore, for the poet, an aggressive affirmation of his consciousness.”

But a couple of years ago, when I saw Garrett drink several glasses of absinthe while doing a reading, my suspicions that he belonged more to the Surrealist than Dada tradition were confirmed. I gained a healthy aversion to absinthe myself many years ago so, for me, watching Garrett do a reading while dancing with the green ghosts was a little scary, but thrilling. This is BYOB, so if you want a taste, you might ask if he’s got any on him tonight.

I had also heard that Garrett followed around Philip Lamantia and had seen him with Philip at a party many years ago. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that he was not just a devotee but a serious FRIEND, and, later, editor of Philip’s. In fact he is editing a lost manuscript of Lamantia's called Tau, along with the poems of John Hoffman, which will be published together in a single volume by City Lights in 2007.

The fragments of the myth of Garrett Caples seemed increasingly mismatched. I had heard, too, that Garrett had some kind of hip hop connection, that he hung out at sideshows and spent late nights on the streets of West Oakland and Richmond.

But in 2003, Garrett’s street cred took a major blow when he earned a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley. Ok, so who the fuck is Garrett Caples? Some kind of New England academic in California drag? His essay on New Hampshire’s Old Man in the Mountain committing suicide because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq might place him in the tweedy Massachusetts tradition, but it’s tinged with too much of Breton’s black humor for The Boston Globe.

And this editorial is nothing compared to the serious journalism he’s done in the world of Bay Area hip hop. His book-length collection of articles, The Philistine's Guide to Hip Hop, with an introduction by Shock-G of Digital Underground, appeared in 2004 from Ninevolt Magazine. Garrett continues to do, hands-down, the Bay Area’s most insightful articles on these musicians and the cultural context in which they live, rap and sometimes die (his article for The Bay Guardian on Mac Dre’s memorial is both homage to the man and an editorial about the tragedy of handgun availability in communities like Richmond and Oakland). Like Philip, these rappers are friends and peers, not just subjects for critical dissection. If fact, Garrett appeared on “No Lights,” by Husalah, Pretty Black and J-Stalin, a little number about the thrills of red-light running. His rapping in French can just be heard over the infectious Inspector-Gadget beat. Is this a taste of what’s to come on Surrealism’s Bad Rap from Narrow House recordings?

Poet, journalist and rapper. Give it up for Garrett Caples.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pink Steam, for Dodie Bellamy (Tanya Hollis, 2006)