Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bay Poetics online class: some student writing (Stroffolino, Robinson, Felsinger, Zurawski)

The following are some of the posts New College of Florida students made on the Bay Poetics class blog.

Images From My ALtered Page of Kit Robinson's "North Waterfront Point 1"
Jan. 23rd, 2008 at 12:06 AM

View more images here.

The work that stuck out to me was Chris Stroffolino's “End Of A Life On Paper” and the accompanying essay (4-9). In the first stanza of the poem he name-drops Fugazi and Big Black; two of the most important bands of the past couple decades. The Fugazi reference is overt, as it is the second word in the poem, but to find the Big Black reference you have to recognize that the line “Set me on fire kerosene” is a lyric of theirs, from the song “Kerosene”. How was I supposed to know Steve Albini fans wrote poetry? If you don't know that name, learn it. In addition to fronting three amazing bands, there is a good chance he recorded (as an engineer, or “producer”) some of your favorite albums. The list of artists he has worked with is longer than God's shitlist.

Some of the concepts Stroffolino covers in the poem are reflected in the essay, especially the lines, “Oh DJ I mean station, lest I start shopping for a better private collection/ To not be so at your mercy like a sideman/ When I should be saving up for a loft” (4-5). The essay picks up on this theme, as it begins with Stroffolino complaining about the radio in New York. The essay twists and turns through his past, and he uses various radio stations as a reference point, not only in his life but in a developing discussion of local music culture (particularly, its absence in New York). As he is talking about the absence of local music culture, he places part of the blame on an over-saturation: “There were so many bands, so many places to perform, In NYC, that there was something meaningless in it all” (7). I thought this was interesting in regards to one of the main focuses of this ISP, which is to look at a community of writers and what defines them. Obviously there are certain factors that the respective forms (music and poetry) bring to the table, but I think the question of "how much is too much?" is worth asking.
Stroffolino uses the New York music scene to briefly comment on poetry as well: “Since bands broke up faster in NYC, it was more about every man and woman for themselves (kind of like the poetry scene)” (9). I wish he had expanded on that point, but I understand that wasn't what the essay was about. Still, like I mentioned in my introduction on the blog, I'm very interested in how the DIY ethic manifests itself in literature. Most of the time it does appear, it is closely related to music (fan zines leap to mind immediately, although I guess blogs are the preferred form today).
As a whole, I thought this was a good example of one of the ideas outlined in the syllabus: “For many reasons, they remain outside of the academic canon or pop culture, though their work is intimately connected to both.” This rang true not only for the writing itself, but the music that Stroffolino was discussing. All of the bands he mentions, Fugazi, Big Black, The Minutemen, The Descendents, Ghost, Sonic Youth, Guided By Voices, Pavement, Televison, Patti Smith, etc, were/are important and influential, but managed, for the most part, to fly under the mainstream radar. In these examples, though, it is pop culture that is borrowing from this more underground music culture. Even more interesting is this sub-culture's resistance to the mainstream. Fugazi, for example, had a policy of not doing interviews with any magazine that advertised cigarettes or alcohol (goodbye, Rolling Stone), and staved off major label offers, instead sticking with Dischord, the label Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson founded as teenagers (both of them were also in Minor Threat).
To be honest, I found the essay more interesting than the poem, and for reasons other than its ability to phrase things more straight-forward. It was harder to relate to the poem, I think. Obviously this is a subject that I care about, but it was harder to see it on the terms that the poem describes it in, where he is looking backward: “Returning to the site of my mid-twenties without moving a muscle” (4). He's looking back on a period in his life that I'm currently still living, so taking a retrospective view might be a little tough.

Robert Glück and New Narrative//"Hidden in the Open"
· Jan. 16th, 2008 at 1:48 PM
I will make this one extra-long since I’m late again. No excuses. Glück has really gotten into me in the last few days. His work with Bruce Boone in innovating a literary movement, in publishing relevant works in his online litmag Narrativity , and in heading up a school of criticism for said works is extraordinary, especially since he seems like such an everyday (gay) guy whose writings are borderline pornographic, who lives in san francisco, whose boyfriend is an opera singer (bass, baby), but who, here , rubs elbows with the likes of Bill Berkson (who in turn hung out with Frand O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and all in New York—this interview, by the way, rules). I started by reading Glück’s Long Note On New Narrative , which I'll analyze
to save some space. What I really, finally want to talk about is Hidden in the Open (The Early Worm, at the bottom of this page, is at least as good, if you have time to read more), a prose piece which I find to be extremely useful as an accessible example of New Narrative in practice. In this story, the narrator details his sperm donation experience. From the beginning, the narrative recognizes and revels in its own inappropriateness, especially in the sense that , as he writes, “all of civilization tries to control and hide the knowledge that I grew from dad’s spermatozoon”. A traditional story would focus on the baby, who “would replace the biological mechanics of its birth with a sense of inevitability.” As for sperm, he says, “these cells of reproduction might have been Hebrew letters, but I call their random conjunction nonnarrative”. Glück narrates through the experience anyway, with some interesting and hilarious results. The story, which you really ought to read, contains images of the narrator trying to masturbate in a clinical setting. He brings his own porn, but when his vibrator cracks in half (“inside me I felt a separation—I realized it was not emotional”) and becomes stuck, and a rather profound moment of truth occurs: “the image lost its command. Suddenly it was understood and dispatched, a boy with a butt.”In one of the story's prettiest passages, the narrator reveals how he came to own this pornography. He says he found it one day in the street, and the description that follows of angelic young men performing sex acts on fragile newsprint that is in turn being tattered and dampened and sent in the air by passing cars is one of real beauty. If, as he says, “the existence of fucking is too simple for language to explain”--here is an example of the ways in which sexual subject matter can be relocated for moments not only of narrativity but of literary epiphany.Glück has found a way to combine the lyrical and the lewd, the pornographic and the profound. With his skill, realizing this capacity is much more than a perverted exercise in narrating the unnarratible. In fact, he elevates and redefines his juxtaposed subject matter and form to, in his words, “invoke what seemed impossible—[their] relationship itself”.

Andrew Felsinger’s “Dear______!” pg. 407
· Jan. 30th, 2008 at 1:25 PM
oh, man. sorry this is late.
This was a very amusing piece. I really enjoyed it. At first, reading through it, I thought he had simply rearranged the words of a rejection letter. Further on, it seemed more like “MAD-LIBS.” Then I would run into lines that rhymed, and I’d have to rethink my theory all over again.
The tone of the piece is set in that brief opening line. “Dear______!” The boundless enthusiasm of that piece is astounding. I don’t believe I have ever seen an exclamation point used to such great effect. It’s because of the fact that the person addressed by this warm gusto is unnamed, unspecified, a number as yet unknown. Thus there is this incredible paradox between an energetic, sincere salutation, and the fact that in reality the speaker is completely disengaged from the subject of the letter. The letter seems so specific, so pointedly full of imagery, but at the end of the day it could be sent to anyone, anyone at all.
The piece opens as though it is an actual rejection letter with the words scrambled up, and a few extras thrown in. The images throughout are completely ridiculous, but at the same time subtly mimic the format of a rejection letter, praise of the piece, regret for the rejection.
“Your book remarkable found its way to the prettiest town on the great translation of this nothing. So it is, again, this fault, your message, our appointment. Remember nothing good lasts a quarter of a century.”
It is soon clear that this is not just a jumbled letter, as the nonsense deteriorates even further into madness: “I am calling, hear me boar. The supple is slant; your place is dime.”

The piece is given a weird, dreamlike quality by some of the rhymes: “The pointed head nose no crime. This is not your syrup, but mine.” I often felt buffeted about by the complexity of the absurdity. I was really taken by the ending, because of its splendid rhyme. The second-to-last sentence made me laugh very loudly at its absurdity: If there is a hat, let me shake your can.” At this point I was thinking about MAD-LIBS again. The line is completely nonsensical, without meaning. But for some reason, when the last two lines are taken together, the fact that they rhyme somehow changed the whole piece for me. Maybe it was the sincerity of the rhyme. Rhymes always seem to me to have taken effort or thought, and a well-rhymed piece can sometimes make a statement about its subject that, not-rhymed, it could not. So the last two sentences go like this:
“If there is a hat, let me shake your can. You are my parasol; I am your fan.” The rhythm of the rhyme is primary dactylic. The first sentence is pretty irregular, but the second one is a perfect dactylic trimeter with an extra stress on the end. I feel that the perfection of that rhythm and the strong-syllabled ending create a sense of sincerity that, coupled with the rest of the poem, ends up being utterly insincere. The ending for me is almost like saying, “Truly, humbly, completely, lovingly, sincerely yours,” and not meaning it in the slightest.

Of course, there is a closing line. The speaker signs himself off, “Sonorously.” Sonorously! That’s more like it. And I love the fact that he signs off with his own name. “Sonorously, Andrew Felsinger.” The whole time I was reading the poem I felt like this was retaliation for a letter he himself had received. I’m not sure quite how to understand the poem as something he himself wrote. What is he saying about himself?

In “The Sentence” (154-155), the self-described “minor american poet” Magdalena Zurawski uses deceptively straightforward prose to demonstrate and narrate the attempt to say something ‘real’—truthful and complete. Her wordplay at the beginning of the piece is especially lovely, with repetition and alliteration doing self-conscious duty to emphasize certain objects and ideas, like her wallet’s “plastic protective plastic that was meant to protect…”. Or like the words ‘essay’ and 'literature', which are each used about a dozen times in the first paragraph/stanza alone:
“I can remember even less of what the essay was about because when I read the essay I was a very young student of literature and there was very little that I understood about literature at all and whenever I was asked to read an essay about literature I rarely understood anything in the essay”
This device emphasizes the evolution of these concepts over the course of each line, and the poem eventually using the words so expansively that it seems to empty them of meaning and signification. Drawing attention to these particular and rather arbitrary word’s constructedness is like implying that other words might also be constructed—significantly, the word “understand” gets replayed and emptied out in a similar fashion.
The piece’s titular ‘sentence’, which the main character reads in an essay, copies down and saves in her wallet, is this: “Each time a man speaks to another in an authentic and full manner…something takes place which changes the nature of the two beings present”. This sentence is problemitized for the narrator, to whom it speaks of “something in life which I didn’t yet myself know”. Instead of referring to the discussion of “something imaginary that was happening between two people in a story”, the ‘speaking’ implied in this sentence, the narrator realizes, is meant in the context of intercourse "between two people in real life”—and its implication, read and reread, finally becomes unimaginable for the narrator. “Real” thoughts are, she fears, so expansive (“there are so many things to say”) that they become “impossible” to express. This idea has her feeling, even, that what one does manage to say is such an incomplete expression that it is “untrue”. The task of “finding sentences for all thoughts” is so daunting that the narrator ends the piece by expressing the sort of paralyzing fear that: “I might be stuck in my thoughts forever”.

A similar kind of thought-claustrophobia is represented in the wordplay of “The Wool Coat”—where the narrator’s preoccupied hypotheses about the impact of her decision to wear a man’s coat on a walk with a girl she wants to date become a metaphor for the complexity of gender identification and the omnipresence of the public gaze. Of course,
mmmbailey has treated this piece, so I'll leave it at that. Excet to say that I think these two poems share a sense of language’s flexibility (in terms of being useful in many contexts) and failure (in not expressing one's experience [truth]fully).

I found two more Zurawski poems online that I thought were worth taking a look at, for both their standalone merit and for the way they playfully revisit and reinvent the famous work of two poets who seem to be extremely important influences on all of the bay poets: Allen Ginsburg and Gertrude Stein. “America Ode” (page 24)seems to be the latest addition to a canon of postmodern poems that directly address America, especially Ginsburg’s “America” f rom “Howl and Other Poems”. The Ode’s self-depricating humor, social criticism, specification, pacing, and other style points (especially in turns of phrase like: “I can’t/stand the sight of myself in the mirror”—too evocative of Ginsburg’s “I can't stand my own mind” line to not be a direct reference) put it in conversation with “America”. Through it, Zurawski is able to update the legacy of the Beats. “A Niece is Frothy” (page 25) does similar, though more explicit double-referential-duty with Stein’s “A Piece of Coffee” (five poems from the top on this page) from “Tender Buttons”. Zurawski’s poem relies on wordplay to both freshen and frustrate the already-murky meanings in Stein’s work.

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