Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Adam Roberts introduced me to this remarkable segment from Herzog's documentary, Bells from the Deep.

Adam has been working on a serial installment for The Atlantic entitled "The Righteous Skeptic's Guide to Reading Poetry". The first segment has just been published online and I look forward to reading it in full over the coming months. I think the piece raises important questions in regard to how a poet negotiates their aesthetic and social responsibilities. I think it is potentially the beginning of a really important conversation.

Iowa City is windy, getting cold.

The fundamental measure

of this city

is not that bell tolling,

nor the tiled body that moves

as we move, resting here.

-Jay Wright


there is
a dancer
above the city

a dancer
above the city
who comprehends
the city's ways

-Robert Lax

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"The opposite of killing"

I've been listening to performances of the Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt over the last few weeks, primarily his vocal works. His compositional method of "tintinnabuli" has been on my mind as a potential frame or model for poetic composition.

Anyway, this video best expresses how I feel today

The melodic voice is being played on clarinet. I've heard other versions of the piece played on cello or violin. I like this one too. And the rabbit really pulls it together.

Pärt talks about "tintinnabuli" in a way similar to Cage's discussions of "noise" and "silence" and Thomas Merton's understanding of the goals and methods of contemplative prayer. This is what he says:
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.
I think there might also be relevance here to the way I've been thinking about ikons: word as ikon, sound as ikon, poem as ikon. Pavel Florensky defines and defends ikons negatively, that is to call them a "notness." By addressing a "notness" be it ikon (not God), silence (not sound or music or text) we are reminded of what is absent. That which is not here is most here as our minds' struggle to wrap around the immensity of the vacuum it leaves in our lives. The absence is precisely what initiates the thing (whatever it is) coming-into-being, at least in form if not actuality. As a crudely formed poetics: silence and absence are crucial to the word's alchemizing into both concrete object and portal for the unknown to enter the world. As a profoundly felt lack, the poem is, while a contemplative space, a performance of longing. I've also been reading Fanny Howe's Emergence in preparation for a review for Jacket and John Taggart's new Selected. I think these matters have relevance in both of these poets' work as well.

And here
Pärt talks to Björk. She discusses crickets mostly.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Volume and Pitch

Doesn't this sound like a cool class? Would you take it?

Poetry Seminar: Volume and Pitch

A literary artifact has no literal volume or pitch. But a poem need not be spoken, sung or performed to have a voice: a poem’s sonic properties haunt the page, silently. In workshop discussions, we depend on metaphors of music: a poem’s ending is “quiet” or “loud”; we “hear” strains of Oppen in a specific rhetorical construction or of Dickinson in an uncanny metaphor; we praise the generous “silences” that occur in the suspension of a line break or in the use of white space; we speak of “echoes”; we speak of “voice.”

Much of contemporary poetics discourse is involved in discussing, reimagining, and revising our understandings of “lyric poetry” and “lyricism,” terms we’ve inherited from traditional musical forms. I would like my poetry seminar to enter into this conversation. Focusing our attention on examples of lyric poetry, primarily but not exclusively its modern and contemporary manifestations, I want the class to look at the musical qualities of poetry, however latent or explicit, and question how words on a page can create impressions of “loudness” or “softness”; how we can map poems by their “beats” and “bars”; how a poem can be in harmony with itself or modulate into a different key. Some questions I want to challenge the class with are: Do poems in a series or collection possess tonality? Can we think about poems as chromatic, chordal, dissonant, symphonic, major or minor? How does an understanding of “voice” evolve within the trajectory from Romantic to modern to contemporary lyric poetries? How do we define poetic “virtuosity” and what is its significance to the poem and poesis?

Coupled with reading discussion and writing exercises, much of the class will consist of listening to and discussing music. I am interested in debating with the class how different types of sounds can be rendered in language. I want the class to consider how sound and musicality can be functions of form rather than content. We will discuss vibrations, echoes, refrains, ideas of chorus and verse, poems written for multiple voices, poems written for one. We will examine the role of music and poetry in preliterate cultures as a collective memory aid and a living preservation of stories, myths, and ideas.

The goal is to develop a lexicon of terms with which to discuss these poems as music and from there renegotiate, modify, discard, or amend those terms as we progress and encounter new work. From previous teaching experience, I consider comprehensive and close reading of a wide range of materials more beneficial to burgeoning writers than hours of workshop. I want to develop writing projects around the concepts assigned reading and music selections introduce. While I want to focus course reading primarily on poetry, I think selected essays on poetics, music theory and philosophy would be useful to elucidate concepts and engender conversation around the assigned poems. Several writers whose individual pieces or collections I would like to assign include William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Gertrude Stein, Martin Buber, George Oppen, Italo Calvino, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Frank Stanford, Keith Waldrop, Alice Notley, John Taggart, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Michael Palmer, Lisa Jarnot, Andrew Joron, and Elizabeth Willis. In addition to these poets and thinkers, I am also considering selections from David Suzuki, Oliver Sachs, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Alex Ross, and Douglas Hofstadter.

Potential music selections include J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Scriabin, Erik Satie, Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, Mahalia Jackson, John Cage, music of the Cante Jondo, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, John Cale, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, and the Wu-Tang Clan.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


Just received Kevin Holden's new chapbook, Identity, from Cannibal Books.

Moments like this...

a white pane

an art space

made of cement

a whole heap of immanence
shock white carrot flowers
hydroxy all blue broke Hegel
a bit of bioluminescent fish

the math or the grid

flowers, baby, it is the math or the grid

...should make you need to hear more of this mathy music

Friday, March 19, 2010

Eleanor Catton on Orange Prize longlist

Ellie's novel, The Rehearsal, has been longlisted for the Orange Prize!

Million Dollar Quartet

Ellie and I saw a terrific musical at the Apollo Theater in Chicago this past week which documents the events of December 4, 1956 at Sun Studios that brought together Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis for an impromptu and unprecedented recording session.

The performances were fantastic; actors, David Lago (Elvis), Lance Lipinsky (JLL), Gabe Bowling (Perkins), and Sean Sullivan (Cash) performed both individual and ensemble performances of early Sun and other rock songs that not only accurately rendered the original recordings but added something new and vital. This wasn't some shabby tribute act, but a reimagining.

I've also been into Tony Tost's off-radio radio show which presents key tracks from members of the Quartet as well as a variety of roots and Americana recordings. Tost's commentary is really smart and evocative; listening, you can tell he's been breathing deep this stuff.

I've been thinking a lot lately about our generational interest in roots, Americana, folk music. Look around and you see band after band (Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, Will Oldham, Bon Iver, Califone...to name a few) giving new life to the "old and weird."

I may be mistaken that this interest is recent (the Greenwich scene in the sixties was doing the same thing with the Harry Smith anthology) but I wonder what's at its base. Is it the age old, "What does America mean?" dilemma?

I worry about nostalgia; that is, as someone who loves this music, I worry about its fetishization. It may be easy to make a fetish of an "old, weird America" when our current situation is less desirable, saturated with spectacle. It seems natural to mythologize earlier times when music was "simpler" or more "authentic."

But do we commit violence upon these musicians? By idealizing them, do we colonize their work?

Is there a responsibility on our part to this music?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cannibal 2010 Subscription

You get all this for $75

* Allyssa Wolf's second full-length collection, Sister.
* Chapbooks by Kevin Holden, Ben Mazer, Tim Van Dyke, Dot Devota, Adam Roberts, and Tom Andes.
* Mini-chapbooks from our Boundless Books Series.
* Cannibal: Issue Five, featuring poems by
* Carrie Olivia Adams, Samuel Amadon, Susan Briante, Lily Brown, Adam Clay, CA Conrad, Kate Dougherty, Farrah Field, Laura Goode, Kate Greenstreet, Jane Gregory, Whit Griffin, Melanie Hubbard, Andrew Hughes, M.C. Hyland, Grant Jenkins, Jeff T. Johnson, Jon Leon, Sam Lohmann, Sara Mumulo, Hoa Nguyen, Danielle Pafunda, Alison Palmer, Kyle Schlesinger, Cedar Sigo, Sandra Simonds, Nate Slawson, Tony Tost, Steven Toussaint, Amish Trivedi, G.C. Waldrep, & Joseph Wood.
* Anything other books and broadsides we make before the New Year.
* The unparalleled sense of supporting one of the most aggressively productive and self-sufficient book arts poetry presses around.

Do it!!!