30 October 2012

This Is What They Say

The dedication to M. Bartley Seigel’s debut collection This Is What They Say (Typecast Publishing, 2012) reads: “For the people and places in Montcalm County, Michigan, from a time when I called it home” (3). In many ways, the dedication speaks to the book’s primary concern: developing a poetics of place within a series of thematically linked prose poems.

Montcalm County is located in central Michigan, nestled between Grand Rapids and Saginaw, just northwest of Lansing. But a place is more than a location on a map; place is also an aura or feeling rooted in the land and the people who live there. As the introductory inscription to This Is What They Say states, Montcalm (and the book itself) is a “Strange country” filled with “ragged, roiling rage” (5); and this rage leaves imprints on the body:
In our basements we become aware that the scars on our knees aren’t those from third grade when we fell from the merry-go-round, something only our mothers will remember, but something darker, some emerging other self, hiding just beneath the surface. We see it in our eyes. (14)
Yes, this place engenders with its denizens “something darker” that hides “just beneath the surface” of the skin, scarring the body as it emerges. Later, the speaker of these prose poems says: “In this place we are all dead, pawing blind like a zombie through a junk drawer, searching among leaching batteries and rusted thumbtacks for a lost key” (27). As the dark self emerges, it transforms its host into walking death.

But This Is What They Say and the inhabitants of its terrain do not shirk responsibility for this transformation. They do not blame this darkness and death upon the land, some supernatural power, or an outside world that has forgotten them. Indeed, they know full well that they are complicit:
Terror embroidered; lock-jawed and dissembling, we are nightfall, thunderhead, mushroom cloud. Like a shockwave rippling across a darkening plain, our gravity is a dance, beautiful as a bullet. We bring down disaster no less than ever, always and never simultaneous, like a river beyond its banks, undeniable and insidious. (29)
The collective speakers of the poem, the “we,” are “nightfall, thunderhead, [and] mushroom,” portending, sounding, and actualizing the dangers of this “darkening plain.” Moreover, the speakers understand that they “bring down disaster” themselves, which is “undeniable and insidious.”

Of course, to reduce This Is What They Say to a dark catalog that festers up from underneath the Rust Belt’s surface would be a disingenuous. Midway through the collection, the speaker says: “They say not to speak of negatives, like the roof falling in, or the bottom dropping out, but we wonder what then to speak of” (36). Yet if we are not to speak badly of this place, how can we speak at all? Instead of conceding to an  almost inevitable silence, though, the speaker takes the charge as a challenge, finding hope in a heretofore “unperceived existence” (36). He discovers “traces of laughter in the sky” (38), someone “imagine[s] places where we can breathe” (39), and intimate moments between lovers occur where “Kissing each other’s bodies, we cross our wires to test our hearts and heartbeats” (8), or “breathing in each other’s breath” in order not to “dislodge ourselves from each other, our sheets” (90). Yes, things might “fall apart easily and quickly” in this strange and ragged country; but if one looks close enough there are tender moments, albeit small and subdued.

The beauty of This Is What They Say, then, is the movement between tenderness and rage. As we traverse through the collection and observe the landscape around us, “our minds attentive to the contours of the land” (55), it is clear that:
Confusion and resentment might linger near the bottom of our cooked kettles, but something beautiful happened here once, something boiled steamed, and the scent of our tallow, our sweat and musk, will hang in the air for a while after we’ve gone. (57)
Indeed, there is confusion and resentment, but it’s mixed with something beautiful that hangs in the air long after we are gone and Seigel’s book is finished. And there can be no doubt we are better for having traveled through this complex country.

22 October 2012

The Re-echoes

Magus Magnus lives in the D.C. metro area. He is the author of Verb Sap, Heraclitean Pride, and Idylls for a Bare Stage. His most recent book The Re-echoes (Furniture Press Books, 2012) is a long poem that "Re-purposes" words so as to create a text infused with linguistic playfulness, offering readers a chance "to hear through verbiage soundness"(43) and become subject to the strange repetitions and reverberations of language. In such a way, The Re-echoes revels in "words" that are "pleasurable for their textures" and their "haunting[s]" (7). Magnus took sometime out of his schedule as he prepared for the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy conference at Fordham University to answer a few questions for me regarding his new work, and its relationship to classical thought.

The title of your newest book, The Re-echoes, suggests a double displacement, in that an echo is a sound once removed from its original source. Thus, a re-echo, one would assume, is a sound at least twice removed from its original source. Could you tell me a bit about the idea of a re-echo, and how you decided upon the title? What is its significance is to the writing in this collection?

I'd tend to agree about the term re-echo suggesting a double - or multiple - propagation from an original source, beyond that of an echo. However, the idea of remove or displacement from a source is less compelling for me than the emphasis on multiplicity, and closeness to the source through the means/phenomena of repetition, resonance, reverb, and multiplicity. Please note, the amount of appropriated material in the book is quite low (say, 10-20% at most, probably closer to 10%) and most of that is allusion and homage, rather than remix; so, I orient to the work neither as assemblage nor collection, but as a single book-length poem indeed propagated from Source, and attempting to stay close to it - maybe that word only to be understood in the intertextual manner Noah Eli Gordon explores it in The Source, yet still held distinct from source text alone. This reverberation - this recurrence - definitely includes Source as text and as the source of texts, as well as its first echoes through Time as geology and biology, as history and culture, for continued infolding of the human and inhuman in language (and thought). The term re-echo, in keeping multiplicity to the fore, has a way of extending the sense of the source/Source into an infinite series, like corridors created by mirrors facing mirrors. At the same time (or in incredibly quick sequence!), repetition of echoes highlights contours, the edges of sound and silence, on again off again (quickly!), and it is in there that I think something extra happens, something to pay attention to. The in-between. And a repetition of the in-between. What arises in the in-between (what I search for, at least): Poetry.

I've been fascinated by this sense or imagery for years: what's in between the echoes, what's in the corridors of facing mirrors? I still like to give away as gifts a book of mine published twenty years ago, in my early adulthood, Little Puddles.
till number an echo
with zeros between digits for space
that is, a tidbit placed on pause
hear and here little puddles

infinity don't add up
One of the "multiple propagations" in The Re-echoes is the repetition of the present singular verb form of "to be." For example, near the beginning of the collection you write:
is as which gravitational waves pulls
pillow in undertow



is cosmic microwaves background radiation

a bowl in the palm of a hand
                                                 a singing bowl

is singes
                flinty, clumsy

is sieve (19)
Not only does "is" repeat (thus producing a sonic loop), but the subject/agent is absent. In other words, we as readers don't know what's being identified. Could you speak a bit about this repetition and your understanding of how it functions in The Re-echoes.

or the "is" is the subject/agent!

or it works ambivalently, with absence of a subject, and/or with the subject/agent being "is" itself. As with the title itself, anthimeria is everything and everywhere in this piece. Multi-valence down to the articles.

I'll safely make the claim that not since Bill Clinton has there been such delving into what the meaning of the word "is" is.

At a recent reading in Chicago, you read from The Re-echoes and dipped into the poem at what appeared to be random places. During your banter, you drew a comparison between your reading style and the Heraclitean river. Could you address the significance of classical philosophy and thought to the poem, as well as your work in general? As contemporary writers and readers, what do you feel we can learn from these ancient texts and the ideas therein?

The Re-echoes is definitely a poem of Heraclitean Flux. It's appropriate that Furniture Press published Heraclitean Pride, with its immersion in everything we have of Heraclitus, and then The Re-echoes, which truly functions as language attempting nearness to the flux, and could be considered - throughout its length - concrete poetry in the shape of a river. And sure, you can dip into its flow anywhere in the book. Uneven flows, changing pace and rhythms, including some meandering. Of course,
is meanders
It’s funny, my interest in ancient works - the classics - the Greeks - might seem very distant to contemporary concerns and poetics, with something candlelit and "educational" about it, "instructive" - when I don't feel that way at all! Even if one tries to treat writing solely as text, there is no reason ancient text doesn't have the capacity to jump off the page just as much as anything written yesterday or today. More so! - for what's lasted has had to be alive, stay alive, throughout millennia. That aliveness. Heraclitus for me especially has this quality: his intriguing, inscrutable fragments, so hard to translate, shot through with exuberance and fieriness. Heraclitus will never stop burning. Oracular, but no bullshit. "The Sibyl, with raving mouth uttering words mirthless and unadorned and unperfumed, reaches with her voice through a thousand years…" I don’t know how to give others access to that, except to go with it myself.

The ancient Greek poets and philosophers in general, and the pre-Socratics in specific, are a living root of our Western civilization. Far from being a step backwards into traditionalism, the rigidities of an academic classicism, or reanimation of dead languages, or some sort of sepulchral monumentalism , it's a radical act and orientation to stay close to, and nourish on, these source-roots. It's radical because the matter one's dealing with then is so basic, it's nearly impossible to gain and maintain awareness of it (with such difficulties in becoming aware maybe parallel to those illuminated by the materialist critique of Ideology): the core of a way of life and thinking and perceiving prior to historical accident, contingency, and evolution, with all wrong turns included. Start again from the source!

For instance, I've been having great conversations for a few years now with Rose Cherubin, classical philosopher at George Mason University. She has an intense interest and expertise in Parmenides, focused on deep (re)-evaluation of his requisites of inquiry, his prescription for adequately knowing and speaking of what we know. There's a great mystery in Parmenides - I can't imagine a poet of any era failing to find this utterly fascinating, and imminent with possibility. Parmenides wrote in the form of a poem, and in this poem, gave us the first recorded instance of deductive reasoning. This has remained inexplicable, and most modern scholars interpret his poem simply as bad poetry, infelicitous for what he was trying to do and say. Yet poetry, right down to the Greek word, poiesis, means a "making" - poetry from the deep past to the contemporary avant-garde is and has always been at the heart of creation and innovation of writing forms and thought forms, the generator of forms in language. The place or process or inspirational field for generating forms. So, it's an absolutely amazing testament of poetry's generative power to consider the form of deductive reasoning - with its own peculiar rhythm!, later formalized into the syllogism - as having emerged from a poem, Parmenides' poem.

So the past isn’t really past or distant, or much removed, if one's concerned about Poetry, and Thought, and whence they spring.

But back to Heraclitus, and his verve. The contents of his life matter too, still. He's a fantastic example of a life living in devotion to mental freedom. His work belongs to the Canon of the Free Spirit, along with anything of the past hundred or thousand years mentioned in Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces. And not the earliest example either - go back another 800 years to Akhnaton.

Here's a fragment of Heraclitus beyond time: "Down any path whatsoever, you can't find a limit to the Soul, so deep is its measure (Logos)."

15 October 2012

City of Slow Dissolve

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guatarri address the concept of subjectification as a key aspect of the passional regime (as opposed to language as a system of signifiers) when they write:
There is no longer a center of significance connected to expanding circles or an expanding spiral, but a point of subjectification constituting the point of departure of the line. There is no longer a signifier-signified relation, but a subject of enunciation issuing from the point of subjectification and a subject of the statement in a determinable relation to the first subject. There is no longer sign-to-sign circularity, but a linear proceeding into which the sign is swept via subjects.
In other words, the philosophers claim that both Saussure’s signing system and post-structural thought designed to undermine that system (but which is still rooted in linguistics) cease to function in the passional regime. Instead, there is an enunciation issued from a point of subjectification (i.e. an assemblage) that conveys a statement containing subjects, all three of which are locked in a complex and reciprocal relationship that produces a series of affective responses. As one travels down this continuous line of enunciation, the next subject of the statement sweeps away the previous subject of the statement, producing any always becoming identity that resists the solidity and stagnation of ontology.

Stated differently and within the context of poetry: from the poet (i.e. the point of subjectification) emanates a poem (i.e. subject of enunciation) that contains a continuous series of identities (i.e. a subjects of the statement), which follow along a line and sweep each other away, one after the other.

With this concept in mind, the second poem of John Chávez’s debut collection City of Slow Dissolve (University of New Mexico Press, 2012), titled “Body, Subjectivation, Anchor,” reads:
It’s with July, its impermanent white days & lull of bees, its humidity stealing off the grey of cars, that I define summer’s withering away

the way a child, after all, becomes. The child: Wahsatch Avenue’s birdsong & the anchored sun. The child’s hands, yearning

for moor grass, anthills, train-pressed pennies & soil. The child: a burning photograph. The body: a cinder of waste. The voice:

an amphitheater of noise. I define the child: a coda of discordant music. I cast doubt on recovery. I sharpen the notes

made flat, revise the guises & box in the shimmering pines. Sun over the schoolhouse roof, I raze one letter

& the next, build the child to presume true the common kestrel & moonlight. The body’s

invention everywhere distant, its meaning against the city’s pellucid light effusing. (4)
Within the context of “Body, Subjectivation, Anchor,” then, the poem flows from Chávez along a line on which he defines “summer’s withering away” as “July,” then as “impermanent white days & lull of bees,” then as “humidity stealing off…cars,” and finally as the “way a child…becomes.” Not content with this series of displacements, Chávez sweeps further along the line, re-situating the child as “Wahsatch Avenue’s birdsong & the anchored sun,” a “burning photograph,” and a “coda of discordant music.” The displacements continue, and as they do, we’re told to “build the child” anew as an “invention everywhere distant” and always just out of reach: the child’s “meaning…effusing” into city’s ethereal light. The poet, the poem, and the poem’s ever-shifting content (i.e. the three dimensions of subjectification) create a protean and passionate identity that cannot be reduced to a traditional or stable subjectivity.

But City of Slow Dissolve is more than just an exercise in late-twentieth century theories of identity construction and displacement. The collection, as well, revels in a rhythmic and sensuous voice filled with lush diction that simultaneously produces a dense but gorgeous wordscape. Take, for instance, the first half of “The City Asleep in His Throat (2)”:
This hour a boy’s body is a busted hull is a myopic canvas of clouds a rain-scythed swath of pines and alders is a mum of nigrescent crows & morning dew is a façade of tubular rocks and the fullness of vineyards diverging into silence


This hour the city is a kaleidoscope of Elysian glass & a bright breeze in leaf-light is a waft of foliage & the washing glide of freshets and asphalt is a preposition forever at work in the verbing is a farcical circus & stand of clowns’ huckstering (39)
Yes, this passage enacts the previously mentioned concept of subjectification seen through an ever-altering “kaleidoscope of Elysian glass”; but it does so in an elevated idiom so riddled with alliteration that it conjures the likes of Wallace Stevens, who fused linguistic ornamentation with philosophical depth. Indeed, if City of Slow Dissolve accomplishes one thing, it is the melding of artistic beauty and critical thought in the form of a poem.

08 October 2012

The Pink

Jared Schickling lives outside of Buffalo, NY. Not only is he the author of several collections of poetry, such as Zero's Blooming Excursion and t&u& lash your nipples to a post history is gorgeous, he also edits Delete Press, eccolinguistics, and the online poetics journal Reconfigurations. Schickling's newest collection The Pink (BlazeVOX, 2012) was recently released, and he graciously took some time to answer a few of my questions about the book via email.

The title of your newest collection is The Pink, which resurfaces (albeit altered) toward the end of the book in the poem title "the pink, B:" Tell me a little a bit about the title: why and how did you decide on the name, how does it relate to the collection and the broader concerns therein, and what is the relationship between the title of the book and the title of the poem?

I want to reinforce that, as the piece you refer to does occur closer to the end, the elements of its title, “pink” and also “B,” do occur up to that point, insofar as they are at the root of whatever is happening in the book. They are also specifically written. You’re right, though, that the words don’t appear together until the point you indicate. I’m not entirely sure what to say to this, other than to say that establishing a context was important to the manner in which I would go about treating of my subject, which is, ultimately, perhaps, the coupling of these two things: “The Pink” is the book’s title, and “B” is at the heart of it.

I don’t want to attempt to begin spelling out what each means, as that is what the book is trying to do. I think it’s a real failure in that regard, and I knew that would be the case in advance, so I can at least say that the book has succeeded on some level and also that as much was reason enough to try writing it. Along the way, through many iterations, the biggest flaws were augmented, rather than suppressed.

I can say a little about what they refer to. Not withstanding its textual function, “B” refers to our daughter, Beatrice (Mollie is her mother, and “Mollie” also occurs in the book). Beatrice has an immediate ring to it, that literary foil, so I’ll say no more at this moment. The actual poem title you reference, “the pink, B:”, should be read as me showing “B” something; much like “and not even this, B:”, which occurs shortly thereafter. The book should have done enough up until this point to make the reader understand this identity, or at least to be pretty close, intimate with whatever its dimensions are.

“the pink,” in the context of that piece, operates in several ways, with the preceding pages establishing conditions for its expression. They’re the genome of the phenome, you might say. But more specifically, that poem or piece began with the Grimm Brothers fairy tale by that name, “The Pink.” I extracted a key sentence from most, maybe all, of its paragraphs, preserving their order, and then proceeded to negate by transforming into the opposite each element, whether tense, verb, noun, conjunction, quantifier, qualifier, phrase or phrasing, meaning, etc. and often all at once, making for a chaotic first draft. The next step was to figure out what resulted, and construct a narrative of that. The result is what’s there, of course.

Another piece in the book works from the same fairy tale; it occurs later and acts more like a fairy tale should. There is a sinister moral at work in “The Pink,” whose themes and motifs are wholly recognizable to anyone of Disney’s audience, and the motivation for the book was to inquire into things like that. I should say that several pieces in the book work similarly from a variety of like-minded sources (as indicated in my back-cover synopsis), and that the “subject matter” I would fail to write accurately would be my daughter, Beatrice. I wrote this book for her at a later date. I guess I could say that she is “The Pink” (to me, of course; right there’s the sign of the trap).

Regarding the title of the book, “The Pink,” any and all things the reader already reads into it apply—gender (history), ick (beginnings), whatever. I do mean these comments to be suggestive, as I don’t want to erroneously give the wrong stuff away while convincing anyone potentially interested to not read it. There is a lot to “the pink” and to “B.”

Much of The Pink, as well as your previous collections, focuses on non-normative uses of language that often experiment with both fragmentation, linguistic theory, and sound. But section IV of The Pink (while still somewhat oblique) embraces a more straightforward aesthetic predicated upon narrative. Could you explain the motivations behind such a shift? Also, how did altering stylistic aspects of your writing affect you and/or your process? Does section IV offer any insight into the direction your writing is moving?

Brother, that’s a tough one. I don’t rightly know. I think the route there is indirect. You mention section IV’s straightforward narrative mode, in contrast to the other sections and my other books. Yes. I would say that those other sections of The Pink have a narrative dimension to them, but it will take a minute. Certain re-appearing markers make for an emergent pattern of organization to the individual pieces as the reader moves from cover to cover. Often these markers get their own page, so the reader can’t miss them. This way of organizing it was in line with much of my reading at the time, which concerned the applications of systems theory to the field of biology in order to understand emergent phenomena in organisms and environments. Proponents of this approach define organisms and ecosystems as patterns of organization far from equilibrium whose phenotypic expressions are not explainable by the causal, mechanistic interactions of subordinate parts; all such patterned scales of organization are seen to have spontaneously appeared, while this idea of a “pattern of organization far from equilibrium” accommodates the persistence of uniqueness, novelty, divergence etc. within any already described system. A good illustration is the phenomenon of sight: at what point does it cease to be rods and cones and areas of the brain? Sight-proper spontaneously appears at some critical threshold, and each person’s knows its own glitches, and sight is but part of a larger emergent pattern of organization defining the organism. Mere cause-and-effect mechanics are insufficient here; the process is nonlinear and requires leaps. Because I wanted to explore the emergencies I was experiencing as a new father, and the ones my daughter was or would soon be experiencing as a new entrant to this world, and the ones my wife was experiencing, I endeavored to inscribe the conditions for a spontaneous emergence into the text, so that I might learn something, if nothing else. The text was, therefore, simultaneously my means and object of inquiry.

What all that is meant to say is that there is a narrative hanging about the book, namely, its own construction. You can see the parts, but what it means is sort of a meta-text of the text and it isn’t clearly spelled out. But this does lead to section IV where a crystal clear narrative structure abounds. Because I was hyper-conscious of the impossibility of writing objectively on my subject matter, making the process of engaging myself part of the story, I felt I had to bite the bullet and include some hardcore story making (as I said, I had decided to augment some of the more apparent flaws along the way). Specifically, fairy tales seemed most appropriate, for a number of reasons. So I worked with them and what’s there kind of resembles the fairy tale mode.

Also, surrounding section IV, the general sparseness and, hopefully, crystalline refraction of what lines and words occur on the page came from my desire to produce a romping, child-like work (about parenthood no less)(among other things). So indulging in some straight narrative hegemony, one that is aware of it as such, seemed appropriate.

Another part of my decisions in this book simply concerned my desire to write in a way I hadn’t yet written.

As to whether section IV signals a new approach for me that will continue, I don’t know. I suspect that it will, and also that it won’t. I do know that I am working on a large work of prose poetics due out next year. And the poetry I am working on, one section makes hefty use of story telling, but I completed the general template for this work prior to The Pink. I suspect that the mode won’t last too long, because my taste for sustained inquiry and methods across works is basically nil. I hope each of my books is as different from the last as I can muster. But that’s just a hope as I’m susceptible to whim and fancy and I’ve gone through a thorough indoctrination process already, having gone to school.

I want to return to something you mentioned early that I found interesting: that, while writing The Pink, you "augmented, rather than suppressed" the "biggest flaws" in/of your writing. Could you elaborate a bit more on the manner in which highlighting the "flaws" in your work became an aesthetic imperative and a concept you embraced?

Hmm. Well, to be upfront, I should probably begin by saying that, although there is a lot of contemporary poetry and poets whose work I love, there’s a whole lot more that I don’t like, particularly that poetry subscribing to the notion that the “emotional center” of a poem is what matters, and which that kind therefore tries to enact. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s an antiquated notion for one, though much of it recently owes itself to Lewis Hyde’s sentimental suggestion that the artistic field of poetry represents a gift economy, which when scrutinized looks like an evasion of the exchanges and cultural-capital formations, often politically motivated, that any published writing participates in (I’m mutilating Kenneth Warren). It therefore represents to me a selfishly incomplete poetic practice; it is also a safe approach to understanding poetry as a project. So, I thought I might myself explore the selfish emotional center available to me through this project. Where I thought not to go was where I went, even if the ripple effects across the work took things further than such a mere exercise.

I wrote in there my “I,” surrounded by a narrative point of view, in a book about a form of birth. It is also inquisitive regarding the root causes, enduring functions, and reasons for personal and even historical narrative—for lopping off a lot of life from the full story, basically which, as mentioned earlier, pervades this book, for which I used a lot of people. The situation is not grim, if you ask me, because the sensitivity itself (driving the work’s patterned organization) makes for the chance that there was actually something else more interesting going on. Which is an approach that made sense to me, at the time anyway, in light of for whom it was written.