Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rut Hillarp

Rut Hillarp is an interesting figure in Swedish poetry and literature. In the 1940s and 50s she was part of a surrealist group, and she was famous for her international soirees in her apartment, full of seances and dancing. She worked on film and photography too. She published three books of poetry, the last one in 1950, but then she didn't publish any again until the 1980s. I'm not sure why that is (according to wikipedia she worked as a lecturer at a university in Stockholm), but she became Aase Berg's mentor in the late 80s, early 90s, and according to Aase was a big influence on her. There was a little volume of selected that was published in the 90s. I just got it on my recent trip to Sweden, and it's pretty amazing. It's also got a bunch of photomontages (including one in which a young Aase is the model). Here's a poem from the late 40s that I think is pretty awesome (my rough translation):

When I thought it was time to have a child, I went to the hospital. The doctor said that he had to give me cesarian. “Does Doctor think I want a big scar on my belly,” I said. “Then I’d rather be without it.” He looked surprised but let me leave after some complaints.
After a few days I started feeling something that must have been a pain, even though it didn’t hurt very much. I went to another hospital, where everyone was very friendly. I got to sit on a bed in the corridor and look at the horror. I had no more pains, but nobody thought that was strange. “Maybe I’ve fooled you,” I said. “Maybe I’m not going to have a baby. Though I am pretty fat.”
Without any considerable pains I then gave birth to four children. The first one was of normal size, and there has never been a more beautiful newborn. It actually looked like it was a couple of years old. The others were of descending size, the last one being the size of a finger. They were all red and ugly. – I immediately understood that the two smallest ones would not survive. I didn’t have high hopes for the second baby, but the beautiful child made me happy with his dark-blue eyes and his long black locks.
The next day when I woke I asked for my children, but from everybody’s faces I could tell that something was wrong. “They weren’t fed for several hours,” said my mother apologetically.
I went in to my children. There they lay all four in a row, dead. The largest had never been alive. It was a doll.
But none of this was very strange, since I had never been together with a man.

[Here's an interview with Aase Berg in Expressen in which she talks about the influence of Hillarp's novels (and Artaud), so I guess I'll have to find them next.]

The Little Door Slides Back by Jeff Clark

Most people probably know of Jeff Clark from his popular book designs, but I'm reading his book The Little Door Slides Back (Sun & Moon, 1997), and it's pretty great and startling in its oddness.

Much of it reads as outtakes or half-plagiarized passages from Poe or late 19th century French novels. There's also a great rewrite of Michaux's "Some Information About 59 Years of Existence," as "Some Information About 23 Years of Existence," the second part (1971) which lends the book its title:

Terror in the birthing room: the little door slides back -

First mews were of pissulence, not want.

In the depot Deliriope.

Throughout the book there are wonderful little nuisance words like "pissulence" that sound archaic or "translatese." I recommend this book. Two thumbs up.

Has anybody written anything insightful about this book? I'd like to read what others have proclaimed about it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


There's been much discussion about the AWP and its rejection of good panels. What we have here is I think not something as immoral as anti-women or anti-foreigner or anti-black, but simply the remnant of the anti-intellectualism of baby-boomer quietism of the 1970s. The AWP committee's idea of what people want to see in a panel is simply outdated and anti-intellectual. Mediocrity does not equal populism, but that still seems like a guiding paradigm at the AWP.

This makes me think about award given out by one of Sweden's biggest daily papers, Aftonbladet. In 2008 it was given to Johan Jonson for his massive (794 pages long) political investigation, Efter Arbetsschema. What is perhaps interesting about this award is that if you look at the jury, it consists of writers in their 20s and 30s - Viktor Johansson, Hanna Hallgren, Jenny Tunedal etc. I can't imagine 1. USA Today or NY Times giving out an annual literary award. 2. Giving it out to poetry. 3. Using a jury of young experimental (for lack of better word) writers. Maybe it's going on somewhere, but I haven't noticed it. I'm not saying this is a perfect model (awards never are); I'm just thinking about how impossible this seems in the US, AWP model.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lukas Moodysson

While in Sweden I watched Lars von Trier's Anti-Christ, which was one of the best movies I've seen in a long time, talking fox and all:

I also watched Lukas Moodysson's English-language feature Mammoth:

Unfortunately it was very disappointing. Something like "Lost in Translation" with a vague politics: global capitalism is bad because it destroys families; you should spend more time with your family.

This idea seems to run through all of Moodysson's films. In his films, community and belonging seems to be almost always positive, while in Von Trier, that's where horrible things happen (most extremely in Anti-Christ).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Eshleman on Jack Smith

[Clayton Eshleman sent me this letter about Jack Smith.]

dear Johannes, occasionally I go to your blog. The other day I noticed the Jack Smith quickie videos.
From 1967 to 1970, at 36 Greene St., in Soho, Smith was my super! He had the top two floors of our building, or actually he had the 4th floor, since he had destroyed most of the 5th floor, except for a two foot area that extended from each wall, that he would shoot from. He grew pot on the roof, and I think he shot most or all of Flaming Creatures there. He was an incoherent but utterly kind person. At one point he took months, maybe years, of junk down from his loft and piled it 7 or 8 feet high on the sidewalk next to the building. Somehow it caught fire, and we were all awakened one morning by the fire department putting the fire out. When I say "we" I mean me on the second floor (I bought the key from Jack Boyce and Joanne Kyger in 1967), Ed Iglehart (who sold hash pipes etc on Wall Street) on the 3rd floor and Jack on the 4th/5th. Jack had no money at all and about once a month he would put up little announcement on walls in Greenwich Village announcing a Lobster Moon Festival the coming Saturday night. Kids from New Jersey would see these announcements and some would drift down to Green and Grand, and climb the stairs to Jack's 4th floor--where they would be met by Jackie Curtis or another transvestite friend of Jack's. There would be one jug of cheap red wine on a table, and some paper cups. As for the "Festival," the ones I saw a bit of involved Jack and Jackie having an arguement over how to be photographed etc. The kids would have spent their $5 and gradually they got bored and wandered down the stairway. Jack would have $100 or so, enough to keep him going for a few more weeks.
On the first floor was a Puerto Rican greasy-spoon diner that provided rats for the rest of the building. After Caryl and I left in 1970 (I was part of the first faculty at the new Cal Arts near LA), and sold our key to a sculptor, Ted Victoria, the diner folded and in cleaning the space up it was noticed that there was a copper ceiling under the paint. Suddenly 36 Greene Street was a landmark building, and Victoria, who had cannily bought the buildling for peanuts from our old landlady in Yonkers made a killing. When we returned to NYC we would occasionally come across him in Soho, in the street, and he would see us and laugh. He had paid $1250 for a key that ended up making him rich.
There are many other stories about 36 Greene St. For now, just this one, given your interest in Jack Smith.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

american hybrid review

[i received a request to post the entire review of american hybrid from rain taxi, so here it is]

American Hybrid

A Norton Anthology of New Poetry
edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John
W.W. Norton ($25.95)
by Johannes Göransson

You might think that an anthology called American Hybrid would collect the increasingly prevalent work that questions genre boundaries and explores intermedia possibilities; or that it would feature the writings of immigrants or minority culture, or that it would be aimed at subverting the national culture asserted in the title.

Sadly, this new anthology edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John is in many ways the precise opposite of these inclinations. “Hybrid” here refers to a kind of poetry supposedly forged out of two different styles; representative practitioners include such prominent contemporary poets as Lyn Hejinian, Jorie Graham, Peter Gizzi, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Donald Revell, and Michael Palmer. (So many of the contributors have taught or have studied at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop that it appears an Iowa connection gets one automatic inclusion.) This anthology, the editors claim, displays a group of poets who have rejected the “two-camp” binary and embraced a mixed aesthetic, one that includes both the traditional poetry some have termed “Quietist” (the institutionally-established style of the workshop, with its restrained use of language and emphasis on epiphany) and the “poetics of indeterminacy” brought into contemporary writing by the Language Poets.

There is a strange paradox at work here, however: in order to have a “hybrid” of two kinds of poetry, you must subscribe to the two-camp structure; viewing the proliferation of styles and aesthetics as more complicated disturbs the attempt to create a synthesis. In her detailed and well-researched introduction, Swensen quotes Robert Lowell’s famous claim from the 1950s that there is “cooked” and “uncooked” poetry. Swensen is trying to show how far back the “two-camp” mentality reaches, but she seems to miss the most important point in this reference: Lowell made this statement as a way to defuse the oppositionality of the poetry scene, to set himself up as a compromise between the raw emotionality of the New American poets and the overly nerdy sophistication of the New Critical poets. In other words, the ideal of the “hybrid” goes back as far as the “two-camp” system. This idealization of the middle ground can be traced back to the New Critics themselves, who aimed to clear away the “excesses” of the experimentation of the 1920s while retaining its advances.

An essential feature of this kind of “middle-of-the-road” rhetoric is that it needs to caricature a multiplicity of styles as two extremes. Ignoring the incredible sophistication and cosmopolitan influences of the Beats and the New York School, Lowell lumped them together as simplistically “uncooked,” while defining the New Critical poets (of which he was the darling) as too sophisticated. Given that choice, a reasonable person will go for the middle of the road every time. In Swensen’s and St. John’s version of this rhetoric, there is on one side a traditional poetry that is emotional but simplistic, consisting of imagery and clear narratives; and on the other side a history-less avant-garde poetry of total indeterminacy and fragmentation. From the first “camp,” these hybrids take an idea of poetry as authentic and emotional, able to capture human consciousness. From the avant-garde flank, they take a fragmented style that makes for a more sophisticated idea of that consciousness. The resulting poetry is “oblique” but emotional and “carefully crafted”—it is “complex,” a word that is repeated like a mantra throughout the book.

Curiously, the fragmentation that poets in the book take from the avant-garde seems to run absolutely counter to the fragmentation —or “shocks” as Walter Benjamin famously termed it—of the historical avant-garde. As Benjamin noted, these “shocks” were meant to jar the reader/viewer out of the “contemplative immersion” of 19th-century bourgeois humanism. The fragmentation of American Hybrid, however, demands a contemplative immersion—the reader must pay attention to subtle imagistic changes. Hybrid poetry then brings the indeterminate fragmentation of the avant-garde back into the real of the human through the epiphany, thus avoiding the monstrous and grotesque. (This may explain the startling prevalence of Christianity among the anthology’s poets, who clearly want to bring the literary epiphany back to its original meaning.)

Moderation is thus not only more sophisticated, it is also, apparently, more human. After reading the entire book, however, one might conclude that it’s not so much a moderation of traditional and avant-garde poetics, but a moderation between too much and not enough, excess and lack. The “too much” in this case is not the over-the-top sentimentality of the 1970s-style workshop poem, but the grotesque and the political. The only politics mentioned in American Hybrid involves the struggle for “the integrity of the language” against the forces of base mass culture. This is, of course, the politics of New Criticism as well.

It is therefore not surprising to see the New Critics’ idealization of “ambiguity” replayed as “complexity” in American Hybrid. In what might be a signature moment, the editors praise Iowa student-turned-teacher Mark Levine for writing poetry “balanced right on the edge where sense becomes non-sense,” and for “imagery that lets us always feel that the world we know is not far off. And yet he refuses simple meanings, preferring high ambiguity and open ends.” Levine nearly errs by offering “too much” (i.e. potentially grotesque) image, but saves the poem by rendering it indeterminate.

The logic of hybridity seems to pave the way for language poetry to fit smoothly into this anthology—the work of Rae Armantrout, for example, can be seen as a kind of model for the new lyric that American Hybrid espouses. However, it is important to note that the representation of language poetry is very limited here—poets such as Bruce Andrews or Leslie Scalapino are not included in the anthology, nor could they be. These poets are not about detailed “attention” but rather what Benjamin called “distraction,” and they are excessively political, rather than sophisticated. This anthology is only interested in language poetry as “the poetics of indeterminacy,” as Marjorie Perloff has dubbed it—language poetry as High Modernist Tastefulness, not as political and “hysterical.”

This may also explain why there is very little trace of the influence of Surrealism, Sylvia Plath, the Beats, or the New York School in American Hybrid. The anthology does include a brief selection of Anne Waldman’s work and a very strange, almost criminal, selection of Alice Notley’s work. Notley is perhaps the great Hysteric Poet of our age, excessive in every way, but in this selection she comes off as a lyrical, sentimental, and almost religious poet. In the selections from The Descent of Alette, there is no reference to the TV imagery of “the Tyrant,” no poems about the hellish encounters in the underworld subway train of Reagan’s America; such selections would render her grotesquely imagistic and crassly political. Likewise, the Harryette Mullen section includes none of the wonderfully crude, sexual and political cut-ups of S*perm**k*t, and the Laura Mullen section focuses solely on the Steinian elements of her work, ignoring the crass heap of bodies in her murder-book Murmur. Everything must be made tasteful before it can be a hybrid.

Admittedly, there are many attitudes toward tradition in American poetry. While the idea of the “hybrid” goes back to modernism and the New Critics, it is not the only reaction to various alternative aesthetics to take hold in American poetry. Over the past three decades years, representatives of the Quietist aesthetic—who, need I mention, hold most tenure track jobs in Creative Writing and edit most poetry series and journals—have been digging in their heels to defend “traditional poetry,” by which they mean a watered-down version of Robert Bly and James Wright’s “deep image” poetry of the 1960s. These poets, writing increasingly dull and out of touch poetry, have used their positions of power to control and defend “traditional” poetry against perceived plots and excesses, publishing and rewarding the least offensive poetry available. The summit of this “tradition” is the famously homogenous Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. For all its faults, American Hybrid is certainly a step forward from that morass.

In her introduction, Swensen mentions that the original idea for the book was to make an anthology of younger poets, but that the editors changed midway through and made it mostly about the preceding generation. There may be many reasons for this, but one possible reason is that much of the most interesting poetry written by younger poets is patently excessive and in bad taste—whether crass flarf, hysterical gurlesque, angry political slogans, or aestheticist panic attacks—a radical move away from Quietism that has been fomented by the proliferation of small presses and Internet journals. A fuller look at American hybrid poetry would have to account for this phenomenon. Meanwhile, American Hybrid merely proves that “indeterminate” poetics has shaped the tradition, leaving it as high-minded and ambiguous as ever.