Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Made High and Laid Low at AWP

Anyone might start with the question of whether it’s worth it to spend your money and your time attending this thing. From an SPD perspective (see my entry on the SPD blog) it is entirely worth it. So, in a way, so far as I am concerned, case closed. Thinking about it that way is good for me and the others who essentially have no choice but to attend -- it’s simply the job and it’s not my dime. It should be pointed out, however, that when it is your dime you have a lot more say about what you actually say and about whether to sleep in, stay out late, carouse with endless poets and/or attend panels as opposed to personing the booth from dawn until dusk and literally never going out of the hotel accept at night to read. (See earlier post about poets and autonomy.) No complaint here, though. I was delighted to be there at all and to have readings to read at and this leads me to my first piece of advice. It’s nice to have a piece of the action, of whatever size, so that you feel that you have a role. That way if you happen to encounter an over-determined self-important individual, say in the elevator, you have a fallback position from which to sneer inwardly, rather than merely asserting the free-floating negativity that might get you through if this kind of encounter weren’t happening every five minutes. Most encounters are excellent and I do wish to attend an AWP some day entirely as a civilian so I can fraternize at will and at length with such folks as want to do that. I have to admit, I kept imagining having an A Tonalist table.

In the event, my AWP started as soon as I got in the van to the airport and found Gloria Frym laughing at me. I glimpsed Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff, along with Olivia Sears, at the airport. Again, that’s the nice thing about the conference, you run into people incessantly, especially if you are me and have been around for awhile and have been attending this and MLA for a decade or so. There is a certain amount of crossover with MLA at AWP, but AWP is a very different environment. Much more causal in terms of dress – don’t get me started about eccentric poet outfits and the wisdom of dressing like a 16 year old when you are not one. There are job interviews but not as many. And let’s face it the scholarship is just not at the MLA level. Many say this but, though I was not able to attend any panels, I heard a few bursts of enthusiasm about several of them. No reason why the panel you propose for a future AWP won’t get through and won’t be great.

There are four or five off-site readings every night and readings during the day. I read in the Litmus, Saturnalia, NightBoat reading on Thursday. Let me herewith officially announce that A Tonalist (the long essay-poem not the blog) will be published by NightBoat in 2010. That reading was very enjoyable and I felt lucky to be among the readers reading to an overflow crowd at Myopic Bookstore. The after party was just getting started when I bailed to get back to the hotel and prepare for the abovementioned dawn to dusk routine. I liked reading with people I had read but hadn’t met (John Keene, Cal Bedient, Nathalie Stephens). It was great to meet my fellow NightBoaters especially Stephen Motika who for some reason I thought was an old guy (really not) and it was great to be introduced by Kazim Ali who I had just heard read from his forthcoming (Oct 09) Wesleyan book, Bright Felon, and I was struck by how good it is to be an old guy oneself and have one’s young readers grow up and become teachers and publishers. One of my favorite moments of the whole conference occurred when I had a very serious conversation with Julian Brolaski who seemed to be genuinely askance that poet contemporaries are so much on the academic job market. When I pointed out that this was probably because of the messy necessity to make a living Julian cheered up and informed me of what I feel is a really excellent plan to manage vaudeville acts.

Which brings me to another point. It’s not all MFA teachers and while many of the wild ass experimentals I know might sneer at such a conference with its marketing and glad-handing careerist happy talk, these are the very people who I, for one, would be quite happy to see at such a place at such a time. I mean you could hang with Jen Hofer and her new sweetie. What could be wrong with that? I think this might come under the heading of taking over the means of production. Have our own conference you say and yes, why not? The only two disadvantages are that you might be preaching to the choir and reinventing the wheel, just to assert one mixed metaphor for that possible poetic enterprise. I mean if what you want to do is see Kasey Mohammad in an incredible suit purchased from a thrift store, you can do that at AWP.

But back to the safe haven of the SPD booth where Clay Banes and myself were helped by Paul Ebenkamp, who is currently interning at SPD and yes to the question I intuit now comes to you, there were a lot of young poets there from Chi and from both coasts and elsewhere who don’t currently teach anywhere but were just checking out everyone’s deal. Patrick Durgin helped out for an afternoon and to get to chat and enact amusing booth routines with Patrick, who had a brief career as a lone marketer and booth slave back in the day, was another conference high point for me. I was catching short readings of Renee Gladman’s Toaf between buttonholing passers-by (Where are you from? Have you heard of SPD? Wanna enter the Bad Poem contest?) which I haven’t had a chance to read back in the world (it is really good) until Julian came and bought the last copy. As ‘Worst Flarf poem’ was one of our Bad Poem categories I ended up explaining Flarf to dozens of people and no the irony is not lost on me, not least because I brought it on myself.

Then on Friday night there was the reading for the Norton Hybrid Anthology edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John. It was hugely attended, hosted by the excellent folks at the EP Theater, an alternative dream space of band practice, play performing, ancient ceiling tiles, endless dark corners, generously donated snacks and, alas, one bathroom. Poets seemed happy as clams there. I certainly was. The reading was a pleasure (I like big readings) and I enjoyed fraternizing with my fellow readers including Forrest Gander who has a new novel out (As A Friend), Rae Armantrout who has, yes, another excellent new Wesleyan book (Versed) and the redoubtable Peter Gizzi who, like many and more than most, is eternally discontented with how much of whose work is getting out there and how much of his life he is spending doing it. I sat next to Elizabeth Robinson who was at the conference with Colleen Lockingbill for their Ether Dome, speaking of which I was delighted to see many chapbook presses at AWP and even more delighted to get Rob Halpern’s new book from Bill and Lisa Howe of Slack Buddha.

And then to Saturday when I spent an hour away from the booth at the multiple Omnidawn tables signing my selected which, thank god, a couple of people bought. Was that when Bin Ramke gave me this cold? Am laid low by a giant chest cold gotten either from Bin, from opening my hotel windows to the icy wind or from the eighty degree hotel weather which surely sucked all the moisture out of my body and replaced it with recycled poet germs. But wait, could that be a metaphor for what happens otherwise at AWP? And if so why avoid it? Build up your defenses, strengthen your genotype. Take your fondly held beliefs and best laid plans and gang aft a-gley. What the hell. Go everywhere -- air your ideas, spin your grievances and vend your wares. See you next year in Denver!

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Fiction is a System to Make the Work
More About Mai-Thu Perret

One of the many things I learned last night in Mai-Thu Perret’s talk at SF MOMA was a new way to think about autonomy. Autonomy came up here a few posts ago in thinking about how writing fiction differs from writing poetry. I imagined the poets to have more autonomy than writers of fiction. But do any of us have autonomy? Mai-Thu referred to The Crystal Frontier, a fiction she has created in letters, diaries and other texts, as an attempt to eliminate the arbitrariness of art practice by inventing a story and characters that would determine her actions. She found she didn’t want to create a mission or biographical reason for making the work and found also that what she could do was determined by all that she knew of art and the art world. It is easy to share her lack of interest in having an overblown sense of mission and to feel happy with the invention of this fiction, but looking at it from afar, as I was working on the interview that is on Open Space, I wasn’t sure how seriously she took her Utopianism or how aware she might be of the issues it brings up.

Last night’s talk and interview put those questions to rest as I realized that Mai-Thu is filled with both passion and an ability and determination to realize the projects she creates, along with unusual honesty and the urge to critique the viability and effectiveness of the practice. In response to the inevitable question about the political meaning of her gesture toward Utopia she freely admitted that the pieces were aesthetic fables about social transformation. She admitted also to being fascinated with the total sense of change represented by revolution, while being aware that such change is destructive to the individuals who experience it. Perhaps there is then the problem that the change is aesthetic, artistic and exists within the market economy of art as well as in your sense of it but she is making no claims for it to be anything else but that. And, in the event, that was and is enough for me.

Much of her work, including the clip of the video she showed, An Evening of the Book (see below) refers directly to Varvara Stepanova and is partly a reconstruction and realization of the oeuvre, some of which is lost or never existed, of this iconic figure of the Russian Revolution. One can look at aspects of Mai-Thu’s practice as being a revivification of Stepanova, a reliving of her life as if she continued to do art instead of turning to the design of textiles and as if the endless catastrophes of her time didn't have the obliterating effect on her that, in fact, they did have.

But to get back to autonomy, in a sense, there was very damn little of it evident in Mai-Thu’s work. This was mostly because she was able to figure out the context in which she entered the art world and to listen to the doubts that come from the excess of knowledge and sophistication that are likely to be the case if, in fact, one has the background and resources to participate in the activity of making art. You can’t pretend not to know what you know. And, further, you can’t pretend not to be entirely in the thrall of the work you admire. You long for adventure, for the new and for an intelligent version of what is possible now. And you want it to include a critique of why what is possible now is never enough and yet is all that we have.

Mai-Thu Perret seems able to create the opportunity (in a practical way as well as in ideas) to fulfill the many possibilities that exist in her project(s) with a sense of energy and questioning that makes the work work. It seems also to lack the grandiose megalomaniacal quality that one associates with a world creator like Mathew Barney. There is an inwardness to it that, in fact, draws one in. Hers is a feminist project that critiques feminism and enacts it. It is feminine and has the qualities – physicality, wisdom, openness – that one associates with our excellent gender. Ultimately, one trusts that she will intuit the objections of her viewer, reader, interlocutor and address them with work in which one will get to take a lot of pleasure.

In her talk last night, Mai-Thu was very frank in discussing the artists (from Busby Berkeley and Robert Smithson to Stepanova) that have influenced her. The nature of her engagement with these figures ended up seeming to me to relate to the work being done by younger writers which can be very derivative and yet is as or more interesting than the work it emulates. It’s as if they are saying, okay, you thought of this or that and I’ll completely do it (good idea!) but what about this further set of activities and results? What about engaging in this practice while being aware of the contradictions? What about doing it with more skill or less apology – or more apology? I’ll have to see if I can think of some examples to back up this idea.

Finally, Mai-Thu’s description of setting up a project, as in the making An Evening of the Book (a realization of a lost Stepanova piece) and allowing the activity of solving the problems created by the situation determine the nature of the piece was an inspiring example of how one works at the best of times. It reminded me that the artist or writer, as opposed to the scholar or critic, most accurately investigates questions of practice of or ideas about art by making it. Activities, like the present one, of reporting and thinking it through, are all very well, (and don't get me wrong, scholars do this better) but when you are actually trying to go forward and get out of some given project alive, that’s where the fun is.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

There is an interview I did of artist Mai-Thu Perret up at Open Space, the SF MOMA blog curated by Suzanne Stein. Mai-Thu's work, including the piece pictured here, is at SF MOMA until March 1st. She will be discussing her work this Thursday evening in the Phyllis Wattis Theater theater at the museum at 6:30.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

More on Moreau

My long connection with Gustave Moreau began in Art History classes, lounging in the pleasant darkness watching slides of paintings flash past. Back then I would probably have just given myself over to the mythological dreaminess of the work. Only later would I have resisted Moreau’s use of mythology and Medievalism, thinking it the very traditionalism – Academic was the word used then -- that the painters and poets I admire resisted. But would that have made sense? It is a central problem of A Tonalist actually – how to engage in or be in relation to lyric and include beauty without – well, without what? Perhaps without reproducing a surface of poetic language that takes no risks but craftily fulfills the desire of the reader for – but, again, for what? For a mutual celebration of smartness and artiness or a charming retelling of familiar stories with comforting advice or a moral. But what’s wrong with that? Ah, but what’s not wrong with it? More on this.

The word Symbolist must have come up back in my art history swoon. It would have been either after a long ride through centuries starting with say Giotto or at the beginning of the modern period, but no, not modern. Moreau is firmly anchored in the 19th century, born, the same year as Tolstoy in 1826 and died in 1898, the same year as fellow Symbolist, okay Decadent, Aubrey Beardsley died. Tolstoy lasted until 1910. Moreau’s dates are similar to Walt Whitman’s strangely and, more apt, to Tennyson’s. Emily Dickinson’s short life 1830-1886 (she died when she was my age) falls well within Moreau’s. More to the point is Baudelaire 1821-1867 who wrote about Eugene Delacroix and Eduard Manet but not so much about Moreau. Moreau knew Delacroix and would have learned from him. Manet’s work famously leads to the Impressionists who paint light but Moreau and his ilk lead to those who paint or write of something like the inner life or stillness or dread. There is a stasis to it that doesn’t seem modern. The original Tonalists (from early in the 20th century) painted gloomy landscapes that are not about the land. Moreau said “I believe only in what I do not see and solely in what I feel.”

Older than other painters who are called Symbolist, Moreau seems more like a Romantic. He was on that cusp. That I enjoy this sort of art historical categorical astrology is no doubt partly what drove me to create A Tonalist. Certainly the Symbolists, from whom a direct line leads to the Surrealists (Breton used to ‘haunt’ the museum Moreau made of his house before he died) are the logical precursors to A Tonalist which I think of as having a mystical side or at least of not being completely unfriendly to such claptrap. Okay, you can see that I can go both ways. No sooner am I surrounded by the fauns and damsels of Symbolism than I long for the upside down urinal of Duchamp. And this then draws me to Jack Spicer’s work which is mythological and yet divests itself of any sort of decorative artfulness. Spicer seems caught in myths he wrote in a way I also often feel caught.

I can see that these considerations should become more of an essay or, better, a PowerPoint presentation, because there are a lot of amusing directions to go in from here and some very fun visuals. And I haven’t even gotten to Huysmans' novel A Rebours which refers to works by Moreau and Redon and is entirely foundational for Surrealists as well as for A Tonalists.

But to go back to me and Moreau. I used a Moreau image in a talk I gave in the 80s called the “Interrogation of Pleasure.” Then, not long after, when Susan Bee designed the cover of Rondeaux for Roof she used a Moreau drawing of Salome. I didn’t know about this until I saw the book on the table of SPD when it came out, a decade before I went to work there. I wouldn’t have wished it exactly but as soon as I saw it I accepted the cover as my fate. Later I visited the Moreau Museum in Paris and got into the saturated red gloom of his Symbolist world.

Currently, a character in a story I am working on writes a poem called “Moreau” combining his sense of the paintings with a reading of the Egyptian Book of the Dead –something I would never do because of the problem of Orientalism -- but this character is a bit precious and full of himself. So I got a couple of giant Moreau books out of the library (naturally I already had the Egyptian Book of the Dead) and wrote the poem above in the character of the character. The poem won’t be part of the story but is more in the way of deep background.

And then there is 2666 which is on my lap a lot these days. The cover of the American version is Moreau’s Jupiter and Semele – a painting that was the work of a lifetime, much as 2666 was for Bolaño. According to Levi Stahl, 2666 "is another iteration of Bolaño’s increasingly baroque, cryptic, and mystical personal vision of the world, revealed obliquely by his recurrent symbols, images, and tropes…” “Baroque, cryptic and mystical” are pretty near classic characteristics of A Tonalist, at least insomuch as they can be applied to Bolaño. Not that I would attempt to claim Roberto Bolaño, who would have been almost exactly my age by the way, as an A Tonalist. In fact, he has a great time with highhanded poetic genealogy in Savage Detectives. But let’s just say that an A Tonalist would find 2666 to be a great inspiration. This one does.

Finally (this is in a story from his posthumous collection El secreto del mal) Bolaño on Moreau,: “I thought…about Moreau’s belle inertia, his beautiful inertia, the method by which Moreau was able to freeze, stop, fix any scene, tumultuous as it might be, on his canvases….the Moreau stillness, some critics call it. The Moreau dread, it’s called by others less fond of his work. Terror inlaid with gems.”

Oh and one more classic Moreau, about Salome. I like the part about all desires satisfied.

This bored fantastic woman, with her animal nature, giving herself the pleasure of seeing her enemy struck down, not a particularly keen one for her because she is so weary of having all her desires satisfied.