Saturday, January 24, 2015

New from Lisa Jarnot

Here's the treasure I carried away from the SPD booth at this year's MLA in Vancouver, this beautiful book from Lisa Jarnot with art works by Emilie Clark.  It was Lisa's name that caught my attention first, of course -- been reading her for years -- but the other thing that made me pick this up and hold it was the beautiful book design. This thing reminds me of nothing so much as those children's story books I didn't much read as a child. (I went for the larger hardback books on science or containing Sci Fi fiction in those days.) Solid Objects press has done a great job with this simply as a solid object. It is a delight to hold, to turn the pages; the colors are rendered gorgeously.  And the poetry's playful meters may also remind you of children's verse, if only the children's verse I got in school had been this interesting. (It was only in my adolescence that I stumbled across the more interesting children's verse, still well worth reading in my teens.)

Into the eve of a picnic of trees of the strawberry rabbit tyrone
into a glazed economic disturbance caused by the rain most dramatic and strange
small whole moon in the sky    fishlike in semblance
as damp as an amphibrach the anthony braxton gland of ant launch

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

MLA - Vancouver - 2015

I've always wanted to visit Vancouver, not only because of the testaments to its beauty I'd heard over the years from Stan Brakhage and others, but because of its crucial place in the geographies of the New American Poetries of the last century. I'll have to plan a return visit to follow up on those attractions, though, because aside from the few times I was able to get to MLA panels, I was in a hotel suite interviewing candidates for a position at Penn State. The first sight greeting me as I approached the convention center made me question my sight, a seemingly pixilated whale rising from the water. 

The conference proper started off for me with the panel on Modernism, Harlem, and the Paradox of Memory. Then came what was for me, with my limited ability to attend panels, perhaps the highlight of the week, the session on Rethinking Postslavery Consciousness. My own roundtable came the next morning, a co-sponsored session on Amiri Baraka's essays, that reunited me with Billy Joe Harris, Margo Crawford and Jeremy Glick, and introduced me to the exciting work of Simon Abramowitsch. We were chaired by Brian Norman, representing the Division on Nonfiction Prose Studies, and, representing the Division on Black American Literature and Culture, my dear friend from Howard University, Dana Williams.

Another treat, a session on Twentieth Century American Literature and Sound Recording, in the course of which I finally heard a recording of the Town Hall concert joining Ree Dragonette and Eric Dolphy that I had been searching for over the past two decades.

I was sorry not to be able to get to more of the poetry panels, but I did catch a great session on The New York School and elegy, and just before leaving town I joined a small band of Sunday early risers for an excellent session on Steve McCaffery. Appranetly there was a nearly secret off site reading Saturday night, which I only learned of late Friday despite having made copious inquiries. I gather it went well, and only wish more of us out of towners could have known of it and attended. That disappointment was more than offset by the discovery that the good people at the Small Press Distributing booth were giving away books for free. I snagged a gorgeous new book by Lisa Jarnot.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


A new book from a new press -- Just out from selva oscura press, in North Carolina, here is Ken Taylor's Dog with Elizabethan Collar.

This is an oversize, gorgeous book, bringing Taylor's poetry together with art works by a dozen artists.

before i drag an allegory back from the bar
i guess her weight on la cienega & hazard
if that's a number i can bench press.

[I was driving on La Cienega just the other day, nearly allegorically.]

find the book here!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Last night in New York, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York hosted an event  to  mark the republication of Will Alexander's book Towards the Primeval Lightning Field. The evening began with a reading by Will, followed by commentaries by me, Evie Shockley, Marcella Durrand and Brent Hayes Edwards. We were introduced by Tonya Foster and sponsored by IRADAC, and if you want to know what those initials denote, you can ask Evie, who was drilled and quizzed by IRADAC's able director, Robert Reid-Pharr during the dinner we all enjoyed afterwards. I opened my comments with lines from the Congolese poet Tchikaya U Tam'si, opening onto an exploration of the intellectual and poetic context out of which Will's work grew. An excerpt from the end of my commentary is pasted in below.

We had a receptive audience, including a number of friends I had not known were in New York this week.  

Will and I have been friends forever, but have not seen each other for a decade. It was wonderful to find him in good health and hear him in good voice.

Alexander’s writing, as immediately identifiably his as it is, as unusual as it can be (on the very opening page of Towards the Primeval Lightning Field he, or somebody, responds to “those who protest the sum of my arcane methodologies”), participates in formal and rhetorical modes that we should honor by imbricating with his own. When Alexander assumes the persona of “an Egyptian in Eturia (25), or as “the whirling king in the runic psychic theater” (64) he is time traveling with U Tam’si: 

I am again beside the sea
the sea no longer obeys a single slaveship
no wave sings
the time is void of sadness (19)

But Alexander’s text is also close cousin to another with which he might not ordinarily be associated:

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
that only glows every one hundred years falls
into the center giving divine perfect light (Giovanni 37)

And behind both of these is, of course, the first poem by that Lincoln laureate:

I bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. (Hughes 23)

And if at times Alexander reads like he has swallowed a dictionary, it’s important to take heed of his poetry’s unspooling etymologies. When, in Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, he writes of a “Cadastral map,” supplying a clarifying definition in passing, we must call to memory C├ęsaire’s Cadastre, representing the poet’s work from 1945 to 1950, brought into bilingual American publication in 1973 by Joseph Okpako’s The Third Press.
Or take this sentence from Towards the Primeval Lightning Field: “Not regressive intermotion, but neoteric flight within matter” (112). This time the poet offers no assistance with the definition, but in fact we’ve seen this word before, and it has even done service in the criticism of Black Arts era poetics long before now. The first time I went scurrying to a dictionary to find out what “neoteric” meant was when I saw the word in what most would recognize as a quintessential Coltrane poem, “Don’t Cry Scream.” In the midst of this poet’s sheets of sound we come up against these lines:

music that ached.
murdered our minds (we reborn)
Born into a neoteric aberration.         (94)

The poet in this instance was Haki Madhabuti, then still writing under the name Don L. Lee, and he had read U Tam’si too. And it was to this instance that the late Stephen Henderson turned, in his introductory essay to Understanding the New Black Poetry, when he wanted to get across certain points about “Black English” and about the virtuosity of black poets:

. . . there is a complex and rich and powerful and subtle linguistic heritage whose resources have scarcely been touched that they draw upon.
Don Lee, for example, can use the word “neoteric” without batting an eye and send us scurrying to our dictionaries. The word is not “Black” but the casual, virtuoso way that he drops it on us–like “Deal with that”-is an elegant Black linguistic gesture, a typical gesture, like lightning arpeggios on difficult changes, or on no changes at all. (33)

This is not, has never been, a question of whether or not Alexander read or remembers “Don’t Cry, Scream,” but rather a matter of seeing Will Alexander’s willful complexity within the larger complex out of which he springs at us.
To end again with U Tam’si:

And if this harp cannot follow me
there where the spirits wait
This is my testament:
I leave you the fire and the song. (141)

Monday, December 01, 2014

MODERNISM STUDIES 2014 - Pittsburgh

I had two pieces of business at this year's MSA -- First up was a panel during the opening time slot on Amiri Baraka, organized and chaired by Kathy Lou Schultz, where my co-panelists were Ben Lee and James Smethurst, both of whom I've known and admired for a good long time. Our subject was Baraka and modernism, and I think we managed to move the discussion past the usual observations. And then it was my very great good luck to be part of a group poetry reading that evening. I've been making conference trips to Pittsburgh for about eight years now and have increasingly come to appreciate the city.

My conference duties concluded fairly early, I was able to spend the rest of the weekend listening to some path-breaking scholarship and a healthy, heaping helping of interpretive work.

(For the second time in recent memory, somebody asked if Meta and I were coordinating our hats.)

Final night, following a keynote by Howard University's Meta Jones, Adam McKible and Mae Henderson had organized a dinner at a nearby cafe where I met some great people I had not known before and caught up with others I had not seen for years.