..:: CONTENTS ::..

..:: POETRY ::..
David H. Horton
  5 Poems from Found Material Given by Dan Godston
Sara Wintz
  [Insurers, reinsur I saw...]
  [(July 20, letter correspondence]
  Wildfires; California
  Footsteps. Movement.
  [(One light on in the top window]
Thierry Brunet
Vernon Frazer
  Delayed Deliverance Relayed
Chris Stroffolino
  Condo Billboard Stand-Up Song Poem Helpmate Manifesto 
Benjamin Perez
  massacre lite
Teresa K. Miller
from in, Still, mooring
  [Lead dust in the leaden drawers]
  [Set goal sets motion to motion]
  [A want wants that belies wanting]
  [Appearing in the man/time, the places]
Stephen Ratcliffe

..:: PROSE ::..
Sheheryar Badar Sheikh
  -struck life
Michael Frissore
  The Jay Mohr Hater
Chris Allen Clark
  A Fight in the Bloody Angle While I Do Dishes
Paul Kavanagh

..:: OTHER ::..
Amy Papaelias & Jaanika Peerna
from Sonotype
  [Character: W; Font: Amy; Style: Angry Voice]
  [Character: B; Font: Jaanika; Style: Angry Voice]
  [Character: H; Font: Amy; Style: Angry Voice]
  [Character: H; Font: Jaanika; Style: Angry Voice]
  [Character: Y; Font: Jaanika; Style: Normal Voice]
  [Character: I; Font: Amy; Style: Happy Voice]
  [Character: I; Font: Jaanika; Style: Happy Voice]
  [Character: I; Font: Amy; Style: Angry Voice]
Ira Joel Haber
  Collage 8
  Collage 14
  Collage 15a
  Collage 23
  Collage 24
Dillon Westbrook

..:: INTERVIEW ::..
Jacob Eichert/Chris Stroffolino
  Interview with Chris Stroffolino,
  August 06/January 07

..:: REVIEW ::..
J.D. Mitchell-Lumsden
  Jackson Mac Low, Doings: Assorted Performance Pieces, 1955-2002
Corey Johnson
  Russell Edson, The Rooster’s Wife
Jeffrey Schrader
  Stephen Ratcliffe, REAL
Chad Lietz
  Benjamin L. Perez, The Evil Queen: A Pornolexicology

..:: ETC ::..
  Contributor's Notes

..:: ARCHIVES ::..
  Volume I, Issue I
  Volume I, Issue II
  Volume II, Issue I
  Volume II, Issue II


Interview with Chris Stroffolino 
(Aug. 2006 / Jan. 2007)

Jacob Eichert


Jacob Eichert: In a review of your book Spin Cycle, Juliana Spahr wrote: "these essays [are] shaped by interest and desire rather than argument." In many ways, this seems to be your modus operandi; desire is central to your poetry. There is a prevailing sense, especially in academia, that the original impulse must be abandoned, that as a poet's aesthetics "evolve," she or he must go in search of a more noble impetus. Over the years, what has assisted you in rearticulating that original impulse?

Chris Stroffolino: I feel I need to resist the temptation to argue over the definitions (and connotations) of those words ("desire," "argument," "original," "noble," "impetus," "impulse") as well as the words they might "sit-in" for ("primal" "need" "higher," "love," etc.), but it's kind of fascinating…I don't equate "the original impulse" with desire in any absolute way. Need feels closer, but I'd say "a" instead of "the." It makes it seem that the original impulse is some prelapsarian innocence from back in the daze, so that, if it comes up, you're out of touch with the present. We can deny its existence, or throw it into question, like steeping it in the tea of infinity (it's the color of the words, baby), but what is a morning mirror meditation, or the alleged escapism of arts and crafts and thought if not the discovery of an authenticity too easy to lose—and not just in academia, but in any social situation. To lose and find again; a daily struggle? daily bread? To stay in touch with it and not abandon it is easier said than done; some lose it precisely at the moment they speak for it (pretentious), so others are justifiably skeptical. Perhaps that's why so many wish to deny its existence, or put it in its place.

To believe, or trust, an original impulse doesn't mean you have to abandon self-consciousness or the wild ride of sophisticated dross in writing (because, yes, some live there and you still need to relate to them, even if "only" for sentimental reasons). Any more specific name for an original impulse ("love," "ambition") will have to be unbalanced, and accusations of being utopian, engaging the impossible, will continue to occur, but, yeah, I feel like I got a calling…and it's not just about desire or argument…insofar as "desire" often gets portrayed as a luxury.

JE: Recently, you said, "The things I loved as a kid I have to try at some point or another (music, storytelling, etc); it's part of paying back the debt." In my original question I used "original impulse" in terms of desire, but what about this notion of repaying debts? Isn't that about morality, something based in ethics rather than desire?

CS: Ah, the debt. I think that word reached me most forcibly, viscerally around age 18 through Elvis Costello's "Pay It Back." He never actually says what the debt is specifically, or to whom or what it is owed, but he does sing, "and then they told me I could be somebody if I didn't let too much get in my way / and I try so hard just to be myself, but I keep fading away." So it's elusive, the "debt to society," to those who sacrificed, my mother, etc. Ethical, yeah; but it's not just some duty divorced from selfishness. I don't know if you really can have one without the other; it's part of why I don't believe some kinds of "political" art that denies self-interest, or any talk of revolution that denies fun. To be the most altruistic you have to be the most selfish. Now, a lot of people who think they're incredibly selfish and that they're not being altruistic are probably not really being selfish either, when it comes down to it. And a lot of people who think that they're being so altruistic, they're not really being altruistic; they guilt trip people, you know. It's easy to fall into these simple cultural binaries because we need them in terms of words a lot of times, and they're good starting places to think about, but I don't just want to be a deconstructionist and blow apart every binary and say that everything you're asking me—the terms of your argument—is wrong.

There is a sense of duty there, but it's the kind of duty that allows you to be the best you can be. It's like getting back to the things that actually did influence you, or had an impact on you, or spoke to you, or encouraged you to want to continue. Since I said that quote in the context of music, it goes back to that whole question of musicians being more primal for me than poets. I fell in love with John Lennon when I was about six. I couldn't tell you a damn thing about a poem from then, except something maybe Big Bird said, until another ten or fifteen years later. Perhaps like in the Costello song, I "let too much get in my way," because it now seems that poetry, by itself, or criticism, or maybe even teaching (given the institutional confines) isn't enough to pay back the debt I owe; they come close but…

JE: Greil Marcus said: "Encoded in any rock 'n' roll song is the promise that the music will, in some barely definable way, impinge upon the world that presumes to contain it." Rock illuminates the sheer impoverishment of social structures through artifice and community building. In response to this, the world attempts to banish rock to the music hall and the compact disc. Does your increasing interest in music have more to do with the community or artistic aesthetic of rock and roll? Does it have anything to do with the infrastructural upper-hand of rock or its longer standing tradition of audience participation?

CS: Is "rock illuminates the sheer impoverishment of social structures" you or Greil?

JE: That's me.

CS: Cool. I think I like your question better than Greil's quote right now. Maybe we can ignore Greil for a little bit here. Let's make this a little bit of a dialogue. What do you mean when you say, "rock illuminates the sheer impoverishment of social structures?" I'm fascinated by that statement, and I'm curious if you'd like to say more about it, too.

JE: I was thinking primarily of my personal experience, the community that I got involved in when I was eighteen. Most of my free time, during the mid and late Nineties, was spent in the Santa Barbara hardcore and emocore scene. It was as close to an experience of utopia as I guess I could hope to have. The vast majority of the people who came to those shows were personally involved in the community: they had their own bands, record labels, zines, wrote reviews, took photos, let bands practice in their garages, etc. It was one big collaboration; everyone lent a helping hand, at one time or another, to nearly everyone else.

But the ecstasy and beauty of the song and experience of that kind of community can make the world look like shit and it can make you draw away from engagement in the world. Of course, it can also be an example that drives one onward to seek that type of feeling in the larger social sphere, to replicate that experience, and consequently to alter social structures in the minor way that we can. Does that address your question?

CS: Yeah, that's a great point; it addresses a lot of things. I'm glad to hear your perspective on it. I'm sure we've had different experiences, but I'm sure there are also some similarities—not just for us but a lot of other people too. Whether it illuminates the sheer impoverishment of social structures . . . obviously I can't speak for what the eighteen year old feels today. In fact, I'm really curious about it and am trying to find out. But I don't think the goal of the rock and roll song (and the grassroots community that may arise because of it) is primarily negative—to illuminate the poverty of other (dominant? official?) social structures (school, work, church, government). It's only critical insofar as it's creative.

But you and I have both felt the ecstasy of the promise of community, and have witnessed their dissolution from external and internal pressures, but must we resign to it? I find myself groping (hopefully not irritably) for new and/or different ways right now, and need to persuade other people that it's still possible because I can't do it alone, so perhaps the most important thing I can do is to use any forum that is still available to me, as a personal ad—to get my visions out there, test it against others, and try to figure out how some whole can be greater than the sum of its parts in every aspect of my life, despite what others or "realism" says. To "organize" but without losing that ecstasy. It doesn't matter really whether it's called (or structured) more like a "small business" or a collective, but it can't just be based on shortsighted or resigned notions of "immediate gratification."

So let's go to the other questions here: "Does my interest in music (as compared to poetry) have more to do with the community or artistic aesthetic of rock and roll?" Both equally I would say. The two are combined. That being said, I'm not that much of a rock and roller compared to some people. Musically speaking, I'm generally best as a songwriter, much of which is done in solitude like poetry, and as a performer I know I've been able to reach people as a one-man band with vocals and piano, even though I'm not a virtuoso at either, in a way poetry generally doesn't (even though I had some "virtuoso" cred in that scene once upon a time). Yet, since many of the acoustic music venues no longer have pianos and karaoke has supplanted the piano bar (and since I do love the sound of other instruments, electric guitars, celli, what have you), I'm almost always looking for musical collaborators, a band or an extended musical family. To me, that's near the core of both the community and aesthetic questions you ask. Beyond that, there's the issue of a collective though—which may be more attenuated in music because generally music costs more to make, especially if you aren't as adept at home recording as you are at playing music (and I'm highly critical of the new technocracy in the music biz)—needing collaborators that may not "officially" be in the band to help work the boards, the promo and distribution stuff (like George Martin was the 5th Beatle, and Brian Epstein the unacknowledged legislator, etc.), and the lack of that has led to the breakup of many a band as much as "musical differences."

Yet this is true when it comes to poetry as well, despite all the talk of poetry community. Poets are often great one on one, but you go to a poet party and everybody thinks they're the best poet in the room. They're probably right, they probably are the best poet in the room you know, because there are no standards for poetry in the way that there are for music, whereas, with a band, the bassist can be the best bassist in the room and the drummer the best drummer in the room. The collaboration exists at a core-level in the creative act rather than a "I'll go to your reading if you go to mine" pact. Even when I devoted far more of my social energies to the poetry scenes, it was based on a hope that there could be a deeper form of collaboration, one based on recognizing and honoring the wild authentic differences rather than flattening them out for the sake of "politeness." There's a lot of repressed justified anger in the poetry scenes, and very little room for potentially positive transformative outlets. "Howl" is history in poetry, but in music, even today, there's a little more potential for a deeper community for those like me without "fallback" families.

There's losses too. The band helped liberate me from the limits of the solo-poetry performer box I had unwittingly fallen in, but, at the same time, the music social scene is less open to the verbal aspects (especially if the only access to the means of cultural production you have is the live local show rather than the program directors and national magazines)—but I've been trying to integrate aspects of "stand-up" (a phrase I prefer to "spoken word") into the musical performance, just as I was able to in the poetry performances, without losing the power and mystery of the song (I didn't mind joking and ranting during poetry readings, because I first developed a national reputation through publishing—an infrastructure that honors the solitude of both the writer and reader; in music, however, if you don't have the money or connections like David Berman did, you have to play primarily to the local audiences that don't honor that deeper solitude so much, which is not playing to my habitual strengths, so it's potentially more alienating and frustrating but also more challenging . . . and maybe my verbality here, for instance, can actually help de-specialize some of this stuff, and not just for me).

I'm talking, talking, talking right now, but, at a certain point I get sick of talking, and that's what the poetry world's excuse for community is a lot of times: talking but not doing. I hate to say it, and I could give you tons of examples but I'm not going to get into it right now because I'm going on very long. Did I get to every major point there? I didn't get to the last point, did I? What was the last point of that one?

JE: The infrastructural differences between poetry and music communities—not just the size of the audience but the type of audience interaction, for instance.

CS: Well, what ever happened to the coalition the Beats (or should I say Donald Allen) put together? Why did that slide away from what is now called poetry, or why did poetry slip away from what's called that? That's the main question I would ask now. There are quite a few poets who think it's okay that only other poets read poetry. That's fine, but that was never my intention. When I was eighteen, if I would have known my poetry was just going to be read by other poets, or at least the poetry scene that I fell into, I don't know if I would've devoted so much to it.... When I say "fell into," I'm not regretting it. You have some choice in life but you also meet certain people. The "poet path" seemed to promise more infinite variety, more "grace to live as variously as possible," but the pressure of specialization reared its ugly head, even in this non-paying infrastructure, and many of the things this scene claims it's "above," it just hides, socially speaking. If the "proper poets" don't want to call Gil Scott Heron or Leonard Cohen a poet, then it's okay if they don't call me one anymore. Although, I don't mean to say that I don't want to reach poets; I just need to call out their "standards." Actually, I don't like calling anybody a "poet." I think there is a conceptual and ontological difference between saying "I am a poet" and saying "I am a person who writes poetry." But the way people use the words "poet" and "poetry" (I agree with Laura Riding Jackson on a lot of this stuff) . . . it has become a profession in the worst sense of the word—I don't want to say that music scenes avoid this pettiness, but at least it feels a little more honest about it; we need to find better ways to put them "in dialogue" with each other; amazing things can still happen.

JE: Aaron Cometbus (author of the Cometbus zine) said:

It seems to me that there's so much exciting stuff going on right now, but we're missing out on some simple way to tie it all together. It seems like in ten years we will look back on all we had and wonder why we didn't take it to the next logical step. In ten years we'll understand exactly what it is we are doing now, the direction it's headed, and the ways it could have been shaped and sharpened so that we could work together and have the maximum effect, the most passion and creative expression and fun. But I don't want to wait ten years to figure out what could've been . . . [Punk] shows were somewhere you went to be in a large group of people you felt a common bond with, but it was always frustrating because, except in rare moments, that common bond was always unspoken and unfulfilled. Small rooms crammed with hundreds of people isolated from the outside world, and even more isolated from each other . . . Maybe more important is just that we start talking again about the idea of community, and start thinking big and asking ourselves what we really want and really need. Then we need to pretend we have the confidence and start making moves as big as our ideas.

Although the poetry reading audience mostly consists of other poets, publishers, literary critics, etc., it often seems to fall short of that "next logical step." For me, the typical poetry reading plays out somewhat like Cometbus's description of a punk show: wasted potential, isolation, and unfulfilling. Was it simply that cooperation and collaboration are at the heart of making music in a band (a kind of microcosm of the larger community), less was at stake (hardcore not being commercially viable), or the sheer ecstatic power of the music that helped to ensure the utopia of the collective? I realize there are many uncontrollable factors, but why do you think the poetry community has so often fallen short of its potential?

CS: First of all, I really like what Mr. Cometbus says. When I hear that statement, it makes me want to talk to him. The way I see it is that they're both equally boxes. There's still the larger problem of specialization that both the music scene and poetry scene suffer from. I'm always looking for people that have rubbed up against the limits of their particular scene. In some ways, one could very easily envy Jolie Holland. Frank O'Hara was friends with painters back in the day. The painters were making money and he wasn't. I wish more painters and poets would do that these days. I saw how difficult it was for poets and painters in New York. Those were sister arts, that was always the legacy. Bill Berkson and John Yau still relate to that. It's much harder for the younger people. Higher rents kill communities; it kills people thinking outside of their communities. For a lot of people from my generation, music has the same lure for poets that painting used to, maybe more so. One difference between these two "sister arts" is that more people who make a living as painters usually sell two paintings a year for $100,000. Whereas with music, you sell 100,000 albums and you make a dollar an album, if you're lucky. The Clash seemed, at least in the beginning, approachable to their audience. They have those songs on their early albums that were like, "we're trying to let people into our shows for free but the damn club owner isn't letting us." They had to wrestle with that and, to some extent, give in at a certain point. But it was admirable that they were at least trying. When Jolie Holland sang on a couple of my songs a few months ago, she showed me a song she just wrote about the corner she had painted herself into. Jolie would like to write a book, and is struggling with the limits of the music scene which offered her a kind of conditional acceptance. For me, it's not so much that I just want to jump from one specialized box called "poetry" to another specialized box called "music"; that's not liberation. The fact that Lennon, O'Conner and others were great musicians might even be secondary to something like Lennon saying the Beatles are bigger than Jesus. That affected me, those quotes that weren't "part of their art." But they were part of their conceptual breaking down of the fourth wall: life/art, public/private, being/thing. A lot of people are afraid to deal with that today. They realize life isn't going to be what they want it to be and give up. They feel like the boxes give them shelter and comfort: "at least it's better than watching TV." Maybe I'm pushing things too much. My body is telling me to slow down. I could talk about the body as an existential resistant limit that often makes people want to lower their social, spiritual or aesthetic standards. Obviously, that's something one has to grapple with. But, at the same time, I can't resign to the fact that there is a particular script that I'm supposed to follow and that that script says: "You had your chance already, Chris, and it's too late now so you should just get down with the system."

JE: On your blog, in your response to Steven Taylor's False Prophet, you wrote, "I'm trying to come up conceptually with a working solution to this 'double bind.' If rock music produces a product for consumption (and the product is not just the album, but the 'lifestyle,' the band's fetish image, etc.), and this cannot be escaped even if the lyrics explicitly, and the sound implicitly criticize consumer society, surely there can be hypocrisy, self-contempt and a schizoid split in the subject that ultimately results in capitalist society co-opting every attempt at subversion, or grassroots creation." If the problem can't be confronted on the level of aesthetics, wouldn't that suggest a necessary change in the social aesthetic? Your Katrina benefit CD might be a good example of altering the socio-economic form. Do you feel this act transcended the "schizoid split"? Have you come up with any other "working solutions"?

CS: I feel I could respond to your questions at least 50 different ways and each would be true. . . Anyway, when you make a distinction between "aesthetics" and "the social aesthetic," right now I'm feeling the opposite formulation might be closer to a working truth (if not solution). If anything, The New Orleans Benefit CD made me realize very acutely the limits of confronting the problem by trying to change the social aesthetic, and when that happens, I'm flung back into trying to confront it on the level of (non-social?) aesthetics, if I'm understanding your terms correctly, but that boundary is never all that clear-cut.

More specifically—when a band breaks up (because people move away), and you're trying to form another one, and it's just not happening, what do you do? For me, I decided I needed to throw myself more intensely into songwriting and solo shows and recording with session people (until I ran out of money). It's not that I'm not continuing to look for a band (not a clique, but something that clicks), or manager, label, entertainment attorney, or literary agent (for my memoir)—and, if that happens I'll change my social aesthetics in the process (but, by definition, one can't really change one's social aesthetics alone)—but since it's been much more difficult to find in the last 20 months than it was in early 2002 when I formed the first lineup of Continuous Peasant, I have to fall back on a kind of self- reliance, given the hand I've been dealt. Yet, now that I've got all these art works kinda dressed up with no place to go, creation itself starts feeling like procrastination again. I've just moved into a cheap live/work rehearsal/performance space again, and maybe there's some collective possibilities here (we'll see; it feels very anarchic now, which has the benefit of energy). But I don't want to fall back on the vice of just letting things float which I fell into earlier, and a lot of this is because the song, and the sound, has to be at the core (or one of the cores).

One thing that's happened since the demise of Continuous Peasant (Mock 1) is that I started writing songs that I felt more comfortable performing solo (the New Orleans song was one of the first); I wasn't writing for a band with its limits anymore. In a way this was liberating, but increasingly I started hearing various instrumental arrangements for these new songs. Here's where a tension (if not necessarily a schizoid split) between "aesthetics" and "the social aesthetic" (the needs and abilities of a band) becomes attenuated. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a song (even if you feel it's one of your best) largely because your band can't (and/or won't) play it. I was willing to make that compromise with CP because it was fun and, we thought, pretty damn good. But it obviously wasn't good enough to keep the band together. Here's where I lapse into feeling that fame or money could give me an edge in finding the right musicians (fame or money only valuable as a means to an end) . . . Is this too cynical? I don't want to be too harsh on myself or others, and if I could find this without a modicum of notoriety and economic solvency, that would be great—but can the collectivist "underground" dream be divorced from the "halfway house" of "youth culture"? Can it make room for those who realize that any sustainable community must make room for the needs and abilities of individuals? It's hard work, even though you could be called a slacker. The old (pre-Hurricane Amerikkka) New Orleans was no "alternative lifestyle" utopia, but there was still more of a sense of pride-in-poverty in the dominant cultural life of that city than in most of what's become of America, an acute awareness that the flipside of poverty is a lower cost of living; part of the cultural battle that is being waged daily in New Orleans 18 months after the broken levee, is whether this sense of New Orleans as kind of a hold out (from the pre-mass cultural time of self-sustaining local celebrities and street musicians) can still somehow survive. This battle needs to be waged more forcibly in Oakland as well, as the rents rise daily, and if I'm forced to choose between living in a high-crime neighborhood (a friend was robbed at gunpoint last night; another friend's car was broken into the night before) and a "safe" (more expensive, quieter, more isolated, colder, boring) neighborhood, I have to choose the former.

But I guess I shouldn't narrow my "social aesthetic" options more than they already are, and not just look in one place (thus, the whole debate about working more within the system, or more outside it, is something I certainly haven't transcended, or resolved, but at least suspended in a question (that can become a song) and time might be the first to know or tell).

As for the New Orleans song itself, I definitely heard some strong reactions (both positive and negative; some called it "Bush Bashing") to it, but it got to a point where I felt like I was a huckster fetishizing this song more than any other I had written; it wasn't "buried" on an album, and there was an urgency I felt in this topical song that I never felt before. There was a mass hysteria, even in the Bay Area, in the fall of 2005, that seemed to surround each performance of the song like a halo or something, yet that hysteria faded too quickly, and it made me question that kind of song, but only because I had already done it. Shortly after the song was written in a fit of (unself-conscious) passion shortly after the levees broke, I felt like I was putting myself on the line because the social injustices threatening to sweep New Orleans under the rug were one and the same with what was sweeping me, and "the best minds of my generation" under the rug, and even though I can't say my song is as good or culturally important as, say, "Blowin' In The Wind" was in the summer of 1963, I can say the New Orleans Diaspora was, and is, as monumental of a historical tragedy as the segregation and racism and other injustices that spawned the civil rights movements of that time. So, one can ask, has no Martin Luther King emerged today because nobody today has the same intensely profound, loving, revolutionary, courageous vision and silver-tongued means and conviction to get it across, or is it that the mass media today is actively trying to prevent any such person from being heard? A similar question can be said about Dylan in music, or, say, Ginsberg in poetry. My first-hand experiences in both the poetry and music fields could lead me to the conclusion that the latter is more plausible. Yet this doesn't mean it's hopeless.

Though I was motivated to "push" that particular song more than any other I had written or performed, its "social life" may not be the point; even with the success of his "anthems," Dylan felt he had to keep going and writing different songs in order to say it from different angles. Right now, the best thing I can say the New Orleans song accomplished is that it opened me up to different ways of songwriting and relating to my audience. That may not seem like much, and that's why I must keep trying to write songs from different angles. There still may be possibilities in the "topical song" and instead of bemoaning that the more famous musicians of my (or even a younger) generation aren't doing it, which (lawd knows) I've wasted too much time doing, at least it happened through me, and the "failure" of the song can spur me on as much as the "success" of Dylan's spurred him on. I guess I'm dwelling in possibility.

JE: I would like to see more poetry gatherings devoted to overcoming our common separation and the performer-audience dichotomy. I am thinking particularly of opportunities to create something collectively for the pleasure and prestige of the group. Although the pass-around poem is not the best example, I think it might be a good place to start. I believe that the pass-around is often met with indifference, or even resistance, because people lack the experience needed to engage in meaningful (actual) dialogue. Walter K. Lew said, "People are afraid of each other. Audiences and performers have lost the capability and willingness to interact with each other." Do you feel this is the case? If so, how does, or how can poetry and/or music best interrupt this fear?

CS: First thing, that Walter K. Lew quote seems pretty damn cool to me. I also like that you link "pleasure and prestige." One big obstacle is that there isn't an agreement over what those are in a group situation, let alone on how to achieve them. While most like to accept a pleasure principle (though one man's pleasure is another woman's pain), I know quite a few poets who say they don't want more prestige for themselves or their "group." Is a poetry reading a "group?" A poetry gathering that doesn't have to be reading, yes! But can poetry come forth from a group as music can? Do poets even want to overcome the common separation? The specter of solitude haunts most poetry gatherings as most poets read from prepared texts composed in solitude (for many, the end of this art act is solitary as much as it is social). Can the contemplative intensity and/or peace of the mostly solitary act of writing and reading be duplicated at a poetry reading? Is that even what people want from a reading? A very small percentage of poetry readings have moved me as profoundly as writing on the page has, and it's not because I'd rather be alone than with people. But however naturalized the poetry reading, and the idea that a poetry scene (or group), is, or should be, based on the reading (especially in urban centers), it's still a relatively new phenomenon whose possibilities have not really been explored. Even as recently as Frank O'Hara, fraternizing with the jealous coterie-god of a poetry gathering, was not as expected of a "good citizen" of the scene; and Creeley and Rich and others did it for money, from a young age at that. The current models of poetry gatherings/readings, whether the more staid lecture-like reading, or the superficially more informal avant-garde sendup reading, are actually rather like the literary salons or kept courtier poets—the main difference being that it's often not the rich man's game anymore; the president doesn't think he needs a poet, or even a foole, for edification or entertainment, or even just to prove he's cultured. So nowadays you hear more poets either complaining or celebrating the "marginalization" of poetry than the "elitism" of it, though in many ways the two are ethically the same, at least as they exist in "poetry gatherings." There are aspects of the slam poetry gathering that are more interactive, and counter this, but much more could be done; I also need to ask how necessary the idea of a "poetry gathering" is to the health of a poetry scene, and consider the possibility that it has done more harm than good for the pleasure and prestige of the individuals that make up a group in order to explore those possibilities.

So, when I began doing poetry readings around age 23, I thought I didn't have to choose between the seemingly populist and seemingly more elitist models that were socially available; I felt I had to at least try to work both ways in order to understand the range of what circulates as "poetry." I was kind of "too academic for the street poets and too street poet for the academics," like falling through the cracks could also be a bridge; it seemed the place of power, of potential, not just to overcome the pettiness within poetry "circles," but that by putting these scenes in dialogue with each other, both would benefit immensely. But even this was still largely confined to the specialized poet's corner, and I knew a wider coalition was necessary. For, despite the seeming populism of the slam or spoken-word types, there weren't all that many non-poets coming to those readings either; part of it often was that the readings were boring and tedious even to other poets, but part of it was because the mass media turned away from poetry gatherings (as yet another manifestation of a loss of a public sphere into demographic niches, courtesy of social engineers). It's one of those chicken-egg questions. But it is kind of disgusting that the Village Voice, East Bay Express, Bay Guardian, or SF Weekly, for instance—the free weeklies—only write about poetry twice a year. And I can't resign that it's a fact that we can't change it, and that it may increase both the pleasure and the prestige of the group—I say this because it happened in the heyday of "The New American Poetry" (circa 1956-1966), and, even though one can say it benefited some members of the poet group more than others, the fact remains that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso's mass media successes did make more people aware of Creeley and, later, Waldman and others. If we got ten people together we could do something, like stand in front of the damn East Bay Express and blow bubbles like the Yippies did, we could do something ludic, something fun. What do we have to worry about? Maybe you'll get arrested, but then they'll write about you if you get arrested. Remember, that's what happened to Ginsberg. But people say they don't want to because it might jeopardize them getting a teaching job (as if a gain in pleasure is a loss of prestige). But Ginsberg had teaching jobs, you know. What do you really have to lose? But I need more than one person to do it. My band was even too afraid to do something like that. It would help the prestige of the group. And, hell, if some other poet benefits from it more than I do, I can't imagine it would be worse.

There would be less of that claustrophobic competition where most people are trying to win over the one "gate keeper" who walks in the room. Poetry, right now, is based on the art world model, which is why you've got to win over the one rich person, rather than the rock and roll model where you can win over a hundred people at the bottom of the pyramid. Not that that's a bad thing, though I may personally get more fulfillment in a studio visit seeing the painting move in time like music than going to the gallery.

On the other hand, the "fear" Lew mentions may also be justified insofar as one wants to have a sacred space (or what Captain Beefheart called a "clear spot") for art to work its magic, and too many attempts at blowing down the 4th wall for the sake of interaction can also get boring and tedious. So, trying to honor that, one specific idea I could suggest for a reading would be to hold an event that isn't a poetry reading. Poets and intellectuals, talkers combined with musicians or stand-up comedians (I did see a note on an email poetry announcement board that someone is trying that back east). You could have paintings on the walls. More permission to interact through talking, and not just a formal question-and-answer session. Say three people read and each person only reads three poems, but it's going to be a full reading. They have to stop in between each poem and let the audience actually ask them questions about the poem they just read, instead of each reading seven poems in a row with maybe an intermission after two people read and then one other person. Unless you're taking notes at a reading like that, you're kinda like, "oh yeah, there was something really good back there like an hour ago." But it's also about understanding the entertainment thing that musicians do, that that would actually benefit if you're standing there for forty-five minutes. And the event should be documented, like a precondition for it happening would be that a camera crew, or at least a reporter for a free weekly, had committed to showing up.

In a lot of ways, it's 1954 (in the poetry world) again, and maybe it's worse because people think it's better. People feel that more things have been tried and have failed and that the clampdown has gotten bigger. People feel stuck and helpless. Maybe because I had a bike accident two years ago, I've thought about death a lot lately. I may not be on this planet much longer. I may only be on this planet five more years. I want to make these five years something. Why not have a moratorium on readings: no more readings for a year or two (unless, of course they pay enough that you could earn your keep from them; certainly it's no worse a form of "alienated labor" than most other jobs), but let's have meetings instead where we talk and brainstorm, and unlock the pent-up energies. Put out a call, a very specific call, and say we're going to have a meeting—at my house or your house and there'll be beer or whatever, I don't care—and we're going to get some poets together. It will be fun, because people like to talk, but it will be primarily an organizational meeting. The only people who will not be allowed to come are those who genuinely do not care if their poetry reaches more than just other poets. Let's weed them out. It's not better or worse, it's just that, frankly, those people have been speaking for the scene, and speaking for the rest of us, too long.

The way the typical poetry world ethics put it is that, writing for the coterie doesn't involve compromise and that it can be combined with writing for yourself or the void without compromise. You can write for yourself in your room, if you have this psychological need to wrestle with the demons, and you can also commodify it within this little box and get published in New American Writing or other places. But if you start messing with the general public, that's when you start compromising and losing it. That's a common and often unspoken standard, and it's the basic sense of what a lot of the post-graduate-school-avant-garde-Saint-Marks-Naropa-Language-Poet-Fence-Magazine-Iowa-School crowd of largely white poets tends to think. But, frankly, there is no less of a compromise in being a proper citizen of the poetry coterie than there probably is in writing for anybody. The coterie might even require more compromise. I understand why Baraka broke away to try and reach a larger grassroots thing. I can identify.

If we got together a group of ten to fifteen people as a think tank, and did that instead of damn readings for a while, we'd actually get to know each other better and could build a stronger foundation for social change and self-betterment. For awhile, at least, poets should not read poetry for each other. That may sound a little extreme, and I'm willing to consider various compromise positions, but I've got to take that extreme position now. When I was living with a poet roommate I said, "we'll get along just great if it doesn't matter to you if I don't like your poetry. It doesn't matter to me if you don't like my poetry. I've lost too many friends in the poetry world because of that crap." Hang out with other people you have shared cultural references with, because you need to do that sometimes. Sometimes you need to do anything but that; hang out with the guy that will only talk about the Philadelphia Eagles. But if we wanted to actually combine things and create this thing that you're talking about—where we could create more prestige for the group—we'd actually do a lot more if we stopped going to poetry readings and guilt tripping each other when we don't, calling that "community" and congratulating ourselves. It's like the damn white church. I didn't leave the God but I left the church because it's boring. And adopt a politician while you're at it.


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