Monday, May 25, 2015

The past refuses to forget who I was

(My mood hasn't been the best lately, downright awful in fact, bordering on outright depression. Oh, alright, I've been depressed over my current state of mind, no pun intended, that state, ironically, being that my performance has suffered at work due to errors, the same damn errors, occurring over a period of time. It's the old Steve Martin routine in the flesh, the one where he screams "I FORGOT" as an acceptable explanation to the IRS as to why he hadn't filed income tax returns for several years. At work , at least, I am forgetting thing constantly, making mistakes, creating more work for those I work with as they mend the ruin I brought those cash register  cash register disasters.   I had to be given a written warning earlier this week. Not fun, let me say. So I might be having memory problems, it may have an organic origin, I am making doctor's appointments after the holiday to have myself assessed by professionals what my state of mind is, present and future, and then weigh options, medically and professionally. It sucks. But I did get a poem out of it. It's about the contrast to what I was like and what I am like now and the creeping sense that talking about one's past becomes a greater fiction each time one opens his or her mouth. --tb)

 The past 
refuses to
forget who I was

when I  lingered
and lounged

in bars, sleeves rolled up,
awaiting a free drink

a ride home ,
anyone's home but my own.

I don't own a car
and driving's for queers
said I, thirst unslaked
and pants 
angular with lust
and sins
of the father
and his father's great aunt.

Ain't it shame
this hooterville
is all feathers and felonies,
i could show
Jeezers a time
to make time
to where you thought
the night was going.

I am in dress shirts now,
ties, pants pressed
and full of old knees
that make velcro noises
when I reach
for something I dropped
to the floor.

You look at me askance
as I speak
and sip your coffee,
you want to ask me a question,
i quit my speech
and take a breath,

"Ted" you ask me,
"why do you
always speak
with your hands?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

So Long David Letterman

It has been remarked that  David Letterman, who last night broadcast the final episode of his long running CBS program Late Night, had become cranky and dour in his last few  years on the air, to  which I say yes, he had been a grouch a time  or a   dozen times when I   stayed up late to  catch his program. 

But that was part of the man's appeal as a talk show host. There was the elusive Everyman quality about  him, liberally laced with a slickly restrained version of the Last Angry Man. Not angry, exactly, but more like fed up with the voluminous ego baiting that passes for notoriety and letting the air from the media's hot air balloon with three decades of sharp, absurdly accurate darts. There a sense in Letterman the way  he managed the helm of the Late Show, someone who kept his smile for the most part, who maintained his formal courtesy as  best he could , and yet we could see the ice  creak, we could witness the calm within get sullied by the winds of celebrity bullshit and the institutionalized idiocy of  those who deign to govern us. Letterman might have been cranky , but so are all of us at the end of the day, but rather than complain bitterly and without end that the bastards are at it again, he applied humor, much of if brilliant, in my view, that let a lot of the hot air from the problem-filled world that goes out of its way to ruin our serenity. 

Letterman, as well, was among the first television host to expose the whole lie of show business and the false fronts millions are spent just so we don't see the facade breaking. The culture of celebrity is odd and odious and it was Letterman, before anyone else on the tube, really, who brought as sense of the absurd, the surreal and the genuinely strange to a medium that created a phony baloney image of reality and poisoned the culture with. Letterman, from his NBC show to his years on CBS, was the remedy to the on going simulacra that passed for entertainment. And, interestingly, he became more human as time went on, being very open about his heart surgery, the birth of his son, his extra marital affair and the attempt to blackmail him. 

He was rarely mawkish about any of this, but he was, it seems to me, genuinely sincere in the feelings he expressed about the events. But most of all he was funny, he was smart and better read than even fans thought, and he a good conversationalist. He was the needed at the end of the day. Not a drink, but a good laugh, someone as bemused with the world as you were and who had the wit to say something about it that made an off kilter kind of sense.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Can White People Sing the Blues?

Image result for corey harris

Corey Harris, a fine blues guitarist, songwriter, and singer in a neo-traditionalist blues  style, writes a provocative column on his blog  Blues is Black Music entitled "Can White People Sing the Blues?Harris, a musician, specializing in a style of blues that's been around much longer than his years on this earth, insists it's an important question. His primary objection of whites playing what is a black art form is this: that while listeners are entertained by technical competence and show business bedazzlement, they do not have legitimacy because the music is robbed of historical context and is, as a result, merely ornamentation, not art that convincingly interprets personal and collective experience in a cruel, problematic existence. There is no culture without the long, collective memory to inform it and keep it honest. 

 " Without culture there is no music.  Music is the voice of a culture.  Separate the two and the music can never be the same.  Of course, it may be in the same style as the original, but the meaning of a song such as Son House's 'My Black Mama' will always be changed with a different performer.  This is especially true if the performer is not from the Black culture that gave birth to the blues." 

I agree that those aspiring to perform blues, jazz, or soul should forever know what they are picking up is black music created by and defined by black artists and the culture, twisted as it may have been, that contained the forces that brought together elements of African and European tradition that otherwise would not have met. Would that the institutions that created the genius of African American music hadn't been the racist and economically determinist demon of Slavery? Harris, though, assumes that culture is static and implies that black culture has remained still. The creation of Black American culture regarding art, education, literature, music, theatre, speech, theology refutes that rather handily, as it arises, through forced circumstances, from a system of oppression; oppressed classes create counter-institutions.

The new black culture gradually arose and developed as the response by black communities to the decimation of the institutional, social and spiritual traditions that had been theirs in their own land. The new culture, in turn, influenced the larger culture, the culture of white people. One can single out exploitation, minstrelsy, racist practices, blatantly bad, and watered-down imitations of popular and emerging black art forms, especially musical idioms. Still, there is the area of the personal, localized, and influence of blues culture on white musicians apart from record companies, promoters, and agents where the younger musician is influenced and, in effect, being mentored by the Black musicians they admired took their cues from.  Harris makes a powerful argument based on a series of cherry-picked conceits to the exclusion of glaring contradictions. He speaks that the metaphysical essence of blues is feeling, emotion, the ability of the human voice to convey true experience, and yet he speaks in racial absolutes, denying the capacity of individual musicians, black and white, to transcend, mature, grow out of the imitative phase and achieve a true feeling, a true vision of the music they love. 
The case is that while self-righteous revisionist scolds like Harris is articulate will limit the range of blues to exclude all who are not black from having true blues authenticity, art does not sustain itself by remaining in a vacuum. No matter how righteous the music's argument belongs to, without the constant input from musicians attracted to it and performing it according to the narrative of their personal lives, the music ceases to grow. It shrivels up and dies and becomes only a relic, notable mostly for its distant and antiquated sound.

  We will admit without reservation, upfront and unconditionally, that blues and jazz are Black-American creations. It's important to keep that fact in mind. Still, the blues, being music, is something that catches the ear of the blues lover, regardless of race, and speaks to those people in profound ways, giving expression to perceptions, emotions, personal contradictions in ways that mere intellectual endeavor cannot; it is this music these folks come to love, and many aspire to play, to make their own and stamp with their own personality and twists and quirks. That is how art, any art, survives, grows, remains relevant enough for the born-again righteousness of Harris to reshuffle a less interesting set of arguments from LeRoi Jones' book "Blues People." 

There is the aspect that blues is something in which anyone one can play the game, an element that exists in any instance of art one thinks ought to be restricted to particular groups, but what really matters is less how many musicians have gotten in on the game as much as how many are still on the playing field over the years, with great tunes, memorable performances, slick licks, and most importantly, emotions that are real, emphatic, unmistakable. There is no music without real emotion and new inspiration from younger players bringing their own version of the wide and dispersed American narrative to the idiom. There is no art, and it dies, falls into irrelevancy, and is forgotten altogether.


Friday, May 8, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ulcers

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - IMDb:

We can agree that director and writer Joss Whedon had done a brilliant job of coordinating the cinematic Marvel Universe efforts, both amazing--Iron Man, Captain America:The First Avenger--and lackluster (Thor) so that that they all lead up to the gloriously noisy, jokey, jivey, dynamic and breathtakingly awesome Marvel's Avengers movie. This was a magnificent first movement in a plan that is said to be composed of three different phases of how Marvel comics plans to bring their comic book characters to the big screen and much smaller streaming device. Action,  insults, just enough dramatic interaction between nominal heroes, hammy performances by central villians and, true to the Marvel comic book heritage, a devastation of a good part of New York City while good guys and invading aliens  battle one another. Now what?

A full blown, energetic sequel, of course,   but this is where the momentum leading up to the Avengers goes slack. There are quite a few critics who see this as an inspired and vigorous follow up to the triumph that was the first film, but much like Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his follow up to the wonderfully scatter shot chase that was Raiders of the Lost Ark, the premise of this film seems more asea and improvised through second guessed rewrites rather than making us think of  a true adventure where the labors of the good guys lead to some sort dynamic justice being applied.  Matters are handled well--Whedon is one of those film directors who understands comic book action sequences and, of course, has a handle on the sort of characterizations make up a typical Marvel hero--but the second act of this ongoing melodrama lacks real purpose. It arises more as a need to add more zigs and zags in the ongoing battle to make all the Marvel movies a unified film reality where different franchises can convincingly mashed together. There are wonderful set pieces, and the final battle concerning an elevated European city has some genius to it, a wonderful combination of special effects, editing and pacing.

Still, I sense much huffing and puffing and frantic, hurried chatter coated in faux-science jargon to insert another plot twist, another impending danger, and then the assembled heroes scrambling into action, from place to another, trying to rescue  civilians, quell disturbances, defuse doomsday machines, the whole sink. The sense of let down is inevitable, I guess, when it comes to sequels--Godfather 2 was an exception, truth be told--but bear in mind that Avengers:Age of Ultron is worth seeing. It's fun, it's noisy, it has that "wow" factor. In all, not so bad. But not as good as you want it to be.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Whitman or Pound?

Who was more modern, Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound?For myself, it's Whitman over Pound. Walt W. could have used a better sense of when to end a line, or developed more efficient method of getting to the true genius his lines could contain, but he was always the more interesting poet. Pound was in love with life, of being American , and thought it vest to invest his need to write with a vernacular that could crackle,hum , storm and sing in it's own voice. Well, Whitman's idealized American Voice, which, as often as not, was amazingly brilliant. Pound was too in love with a past he idealized to the point of creating the cult of impenetrability when he tried to revive it in his own creations. 

Poet and critic Bob Perelman writes about Pound, Stein, Joyce et al  in his book "The Trouble with Genius",and the contradiction of poets who, sharing a mission to change the way readers (and civilization in general) saw reality , with the emphasis being on trying a near clarity in how we discuss, describe and seek to change the world we live in, were themselves too brilliant for that purpose. The writing was thick, opaque, difficult by design as the early modernist poets tried, in general, to change the way populations regarded the world and the true relations between the emotional and the political. In all, it is a poetry worth reading and regarding, but Pound seemed tone-deaf in what he wrote as poetry; I always regarded him as one of those who had ideas and theories that were more usefully provocative than the poetry itself, which seemed to exist solely to demonstrate ideas he had formalized prior to the composition of lyric and epic verse. Pound seems truly less Modern than Whitman for that reason. 
Pound had a fascinating career tempering his taste for fascist politics and racism with a cherry picked set of  theoretical pleasures cherry picked from the writings of  ancient Asian poetry and Greek classics in the attempt to make them relevant to contemporary situations that has evolved , most foul, from what he deemed was humanity's fall from greatness. He was nostalgic for eras he didn't live in. Pound had no interest outside the world in front the of him, the people in it, and his experience and perceptions of them both. He embraced what was right and wrong and worshiped the passion and lust for life it took to make it through the rigor of the moment and settle down , at the end of the work day, or the end of a working life, tired, satisfied,  with the time one has been allotted filled with gusto, verve, a need to test resources and extend the limits of what can do and who one can love. 

Finally, I would ask who is more readable and provides more pleasure?Pound was sane, of course, but he was more a literary critic than poet. As for poetry , I would cite Eliot as the superior influence as to how poets of succeeding generations formed their sense of what actual verse should sound like and achieve. Eliot was a better artist, Pound the better cheer leader for the movement.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

notes on Jack Spicer

Ron Silliman commemorated the 9/11 anniversary on his blog yesterday with a gruesome photograph of ground zero with two poems by Jack Spicer superimposed over the carnage. It understandably caused a minor tempest among a few readers who thought we'd had enough fetishism over the attack, and that it was a use of Spicer's work the late poet might not have approved of. I thought it fine and appropriate; Spicer equated God with a Big Radio and seemed taken with the idea of a poet's inspiration being transmissions from far off places, old voices of dead poets in turn who find their metaphors turned into apt descriptions of current circumstances.By the time the hidden essence, the secret nuance of what a poet was talking about catches with a culture's experience, their original intent, while interesting, is not relevant as to how their words make our lives comprehensible, even if only on a visceral level. You could argue that the correlative intimations older poems have on the range of contemporary events is the coincidental irony, but there is a saturation point when the lines, intended for what's implied, hushed and only vaguely graspable on the specific subject matter, become instead the needed at-hand phrases that get the ideas that elude you when tragedies or windfalls of good fortune intervene on the come-and-go.

The poet loses control of what his poet is supposed to mean as history adds associations to the syntactical skin. Spicer, I suspect, might well object to the use, but there is a savage bluntness about poets and their varied attempts to find a greater resonance from the obscenity of violence that resonates with what we're remembering today. What Spicer intended is a moot point, and in this instance, inconsequential. Today was the day everything changed, as they overused phrase went, and that meant everyone had to take a hard look at who they were, who they said they were, and why that mattered in the face of such insane destruction. Spicer, not the least, likely would have considered long and hard; there is the notion that what you've said in a situation you want to clarify gets repeated against seemingly opposing backgrounds. The voices from out of the air, from the radio of memory, are triggered by extraordinary events that transform our regular which, after all, are not static in any sense. Silliman's collage is an inspired combination of histories; they are no longer mutually exclusive. 

I am just finishing the “must read” poetry volume of the year, My Vocabulary Did this To Me, an anticipated republication of the poems by the late Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, and I have to admit that Spicer’s writing has me momentarily forgetting my prejudice against poems about poetry and poets and allowing myself to be knocked by the author’s third-rail wit. A singular figure who didn't fit in well with the Beats, the New York School, nor the San Francisco Renaissance, Spicer’s poems were a set of marginalia at the edges of the principle discussion as to what poetry was and ought to be, and as becomes clear as we read, his counter-assertions, his asides, his declarations had more self-contained clarity and vision that much of the stuff he looked askance at.

Interrogation of received notions was his ongoing the theme, and ‘through the practice of making literary practice the unifying metaphor in a body of work tends to seal off poetry from a readership that could benefit from a skewed viewpoint—unlocking a door only to find another locked door, or a brick wall ceases to be amusing once one begins to read poets for things other than status—Spicer rather positions the whole profession and the art as an item among a range of other activities individuals take on to make their daily life cohere with a faint purpose, they might feel welling inside them. Spicer, in matters of money, sexuality, poetry, religion zeros on the neatly paired arrangements our language system indexes our hairiest ideas with and sniffs a rat when the description opts for the easily deployed adjectives, similes, and conclusions that make the hours go faster.

Thing Language
By Jack Spicer

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

There is a reservedly antagonistic undercurrent to Spicer’s work, the subtle and ironic derision of the language arts that, as he sees them practiced, is locked up in matters of petty matters of status, property, the ownership of ideas, the expansion of respective egos that mistake their basic cleverness for genius. The world, the external and physical realm that one cannot know but only describe with terms that continually need to be resuscitated, is, as we know, something else altogether that hasn’t the need for elaborate vocabularies that compare Nature and Reality with everything a poet can get his or her hands on. What this proves, Spicer thinks (it seems to me, in any event) is that we know nothing of the material we try to distill in verse; even our language is parted out from other dialogues.

The Sporting Life
By Jack Spicer

The trouble with comparing a poet with a radio is that radios
don't develop scar-tissue. The tubes burn out, or with a
transistor, which most souls are, the battery or diagram
burns out replacable or not replacable, but not like that
punchdrunk fighter in a bar. The poet
Takes too many messages. The right to the ear that floored him
in New Jersey. The right to say that he stood six rounds with
a champion.
Then they sell beer or go on sporting commissions, or, if the
scar tissue is too heavy, demonstrate in a bar where the
invisible champions might not have hit him. Too many of
The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a
counterpunching radio.
And those messages (God would not damn them) do not even
know they are champions.

Spicer is an interesting poet on several levels, all of the deep and rich with deposits that reward an earnest dig. He is, I think, on a par with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams with the interest in grilling the elaborative infrastructure of how we draw or are drawn to specialized conclusions with the use of metaphor, and it is to his particular brilliance as a lyric poet, comparable to Frank O’Hara (a poet Spicer declared he didn’t care for, with O’Hara thinking much the same in kind) that the contradictions, competing desires and unexpected conundrums of investigating one’s verbal stream are made comprehensible to the senses, a joy to the ear. No one, really no one wrote as distinctly as the long obscure Spicer did, and editors Gizzi, Killian and publisher Wesleyan Press are to be thanked for restoring a major American voice to our shared canon. 

ack Spicer was an odd and inspired contrarian in place during the San Francisco Renaissance, who conceived poetry as "dictation" of a sort. He had gone so far as to refer to the poet as a "radio", a living device able to intercept transmissions from an otherwise invisible world of sharper, bolder, more original combinations of sound, rhythm, form. This is a unique way of insisting, again, that the artist is the "antenna of the race", and there is room enough in his thought to wonder if he considered the poet the one in particular who could touch Plato's Ideal Forms, or if thought he had the ability to peek behind the curtain to espy the furniture of Stevens' Supreme Fiction. Spicer was a troubled man, though, an alcoholic, someone at odds with the poetry community he lived in, but he was a serious, sometimes brilliant poet who could calm his erudition and gives us a poetry of propositions, what ifs, things thornier and much less sweet than the soft candy a few dozen celebrity poets win awards for. Here's a fine poem, a brief lyric essay considering the likeness of some, unlike things.

Book Of Music

by Jack Spicer

Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves' boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Like death.
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
Its endings.
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.

A cynic's view, perhaps, where the picture that's painted first has the gasping awe of young love, perfect, endless like a circle, the world itself, and later, destroyed, cut at the vital moment of greatest vulnerability, merely a thick string that starts at one end and merely ends, absent glory or beauty, at another. Even after the twists and turns of the thing itself--love, the foiled circle--to restore itself in reactionary spasms, things just end, and rapture and passion are replaced by bitter memory, a bitterness that gives way to a mellowed skepticism, if one is lucky to live long enough to be a witness their foolish expectations of people, places, things, and especially the foolishness one might have said about poetry in whatever earnest declarations one uttered in classrooms, dorm rooms, cafes where the intelligent and underpaid gathered for a cheap drink and company.

What is artistry?

Artistry begins when you forget your own ideas about what art is and what art making is and find yourself fully engaged in a moment of absolute creation, when everything you know how to do intellectually, technically and can access at command just come to you as easily as taking a breath; it happens  seamlessly. It's more than remember the advice that you cannot let the audience see you sweat and become aware of  rattled nerves and possible indecision, it is forgetting that you are nervous and full of self-doubt at all and taking the fabled Kierkegaardian Leap Of Faith, that jump over the abyss of self-sabotage and knowing that whatever the consequences are better than another minute of wallowing in the rut we've had furnished and moved into. Artistry, to trade further in cliches, is that existential moment where one discovers not the meaning of life over all but rather meaning to their life specifically by an ethically bound commitment to creativity.

Ideas join with other notions and create a dialectic that creates something new in the synthesis, and then again. Artistry is that moment when the mastery of a medium,whether music, visual art, writing, is not just a manner of "going to work" or being a professional at what you do but rather a state of being that comes when you're fortunate enough to ignore the advice, the nagging,the criticism of doubters, cynics and the habitually grumpy and bring into the world some thing unique, fresh, exciting to behold. 

This means as well that you're able to transform your own base short comings, your character short comings; artistry is that process where we have a chance through art making to for a period create a testament of what we'd like to become, better, more balanced, fairer, kinder, free of bitterness and the mentality that the best of what's been said and written and built in history and instead exist in the present tense and seeing hearing things in the world that are other wise invisible and anonymous. Artistry is the amnesia that follows the hard learning and practice and dues paying and is an entry into the dimension of true transcendence. Artistry is that essence where even the most arrogant of technically adroit craftsmen and craftswomen are flabbergasted and humbled by what they've created with their minds,their hands, their willingness to forget themselves for a period and be touched by something greater than themselves.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Genius arising from limitation

Artistry is only incidentally related to sheer technical virtuosity; technique is merely the formalized and acquired skills of how to do some particular thing. Talent, on the other hand, is what you do with the technique you've worked hard and long to attain, IE, create art. Artistry , it seems to my thinking, is one having mastery over the chops they do have and having the ability to exploit those elements in expressions that continue to surprise over time.

Dylan was not an especially impressive guitarist, harmonica player and was, in many ways, highly affected as a lyricist, but there was a manner in which he brought those things together and created something , a way of writing songs, that achieved singular stature. What he had brought together by dint of his influences from folk, blues, and literature and the non-virtuoso elements of his musicianship brought something into the popular mind that had not been there before.

Others are able to step away from their highly regarded technique and move toward more primitive sorts of expression, as in the case of Picasso , who through his experiments with Cubist perspective and inspired emulation of types of African sculpture, among other things, he was instrumental in changing the way art is viewed and discussed. Importantly, artistry , in its most intense and purest form, free of current fashion and critical perspective, changes the conversation.

Coltrane advanced further into rapid, technically demanding improvisation and left us with long solos that stand nearly by themselves as independent art works while Miles Davis reduced the number of notes in his solos and geared his compositions and arrangements toward sparer, more modal means and changed the course of music internationally for decades to come. Artistry is not just knowing how, it's knowing what you want to do at the moment the idea hits and having the means to execute those notions.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The heart loves what the heart loves

Over on a discussion board dedicated to the subject of Modern Blues Harmonica, a member posted a well-worn topic as to whether white people have the right to play the music of black people, aka The Blues. It's well worn and has been discussed, but it is not worn out by any means, given that even to this day Americans don't know how to discuss race relations and agree on the seemingly simple principle of Liberty and Justice for All. Touchy subject here, but I would say the issue whether white people have a right comes down to this: perhaps not, due to a long history of white racism that foisted slavery, genocide, discrimination and abject poverty upon black people. Blues was created as an expression of the experience of subjugated African Americans. BUT, and this a big one, how are you going to stop those white musicians who've loved the blues as they were growing up, who were moved by the power of the music to pick up instruments and learn from the records they heard? People love what they love and will do what they need to do to have that person/place/thing/art form in their lives because any of those elements (in this case, the music of the blues) is a right fit for an individual's personal experience, regardless of race. 

Declarations and nuanced moral arguments to the extent that white people as a whole have forsaken the right to play a music that moves them greatly because the power structure in place and the institutions that enforce its will and traditions have brutally oppressed black people as a whole does not prevent white musicians from picking up a guitar or a harmonica or a saxophone and playing songs by black blues masters or from creating their own music, reflecting their own experience , strength and hope. The heart wants what the heart wants, and I am grateful that the likes of Butterfield, Mayall, Clapton, Bloomfield preferred to engage the music they loved by playing it and not treating it like it were a museum piece they were not worthy of touching. Things in museums are dead things, and the blues is a living testament to human resilience. It is a form of speaking truth to power; the need to do so is not ethnically exclusive. Music writer J.Marks, in a book he wrote called "Rock and Other Four Letter Words" had at least one useful remark, to the effect that while America has been/is a country where the races segregate themselves by choice or other reasons, but even in that isolation from one another, our music still mingle together and transform and change and grow and create new ways of expressing the mood, the art, the temper and tempo of the current situation. Right, it seems, has nothing to do with it. People are going to play what they feel like playing regardless of who created it. That is the nature of human beings, which is the nature of art-making itself.

Friday, April 3, 2015

About Steve Kowit

Wednesday was April 1st, known to us all as April Fools' Day. It's the same day that commences the start of National Poetry Month, a four-week span selected because of the famous T.S. Eliot's line from "The Waste Land" that "… April is the cruelest month…" Thursday, April 2nd was the day Steve Kowit, a great poet, a genuinely principled moralist, a quick-witted spirit of irrepressible good humor and no one's fool by any means, died. The irony of how a day dedicated to practical jokes, a commemorative poetry month selected for a line written by a reactionary, racist, dour by nonetheless brilliant poet, and the passing of one of the most jubilant poets and exuberant personalities collided the way they did is inescapable, I suppose. But rather than inspecting and interpreting too closely. 

It's better, more appropriate, more helpful to remember Steve Kowit as a man of many gifts, interests, passions, commitments, from his work in which he superbly fused the vernacular of street rhythm with the careful and skillfully off-center ear of a jazz improviser, his genius as a teacher where he combined that rarest thing, honest and productive criticism intended to make a poet a better writer. As a writer, he was loquacious who favored long lines, unexpected examples of what he was talking, odd turns of thought and colorful phrase-making and high-octane similes; for all is the love of chatter, though, there was cultivation, a genius for getting to the point in the seemingly effortless rhythm of a musician as he ad-libbed fine musical phrases and elegant filigrees over either the most accelerated or most relaxed of tempos. 

He made what he did sound simple, easy to do, but as any with a love of music and perhaps has even achieved a level of fluidity on an instrument, the aspect of effortlessness comes with practice, practice, practice. To that end, Steve was always practicing his craft, poetry, constantly honing his chops. I had always thought of Steve's poems as perhaps the best example of someone achieving the effect of someone musing out loud, thinking out loud, taking a topic sentence, a chance remark about something he had seen, heard, caught, and taking us through the dancing and delicately spun perorations of his thought as he came finally to rest, halt, at that place where there is a pause and Steve takes a deep breath and reveals how his experience of the world was altered by the event, the conversation, the book, the thing he heard or saw and thought remarkable.

 Remark he did, and for me, he was the most intimate of poets, a writer to whom someone is being addressed, spoken to, confided in.  Even if it were merely a matter of Steve loving the sound of his writing being resounded with the city cadences of his speaking voice, there was still the feeling that he was someone talking to you from across the table or leaning in closer to add an insight or a joke or some confidence that were for your ears alone. But for all the seeming effortlessness of making it seem as though he was talking seamlessly and without boundaries, off the cuff and unbound, Steve's writing did not, in large part, drift or wander lost in abstraction or confused association. In his workshops and the countless readings he'd given and in personal conversation, Steve talked about craft, rewriting, honing each poem until it was the most perfect expression it could be. Steve was constantly rewriting lyrics and would often introduce his poems as ones he'd been working on for months, even years. All this sounded incredible to me, a poet who was habitually writing fast and perhaps doing some minor tweaking; at first glance, all that revising seemed contrary to spontaneous expression. Later, I realized why there are so many poems that are so good. That feeling of effortlessness in his poems was the result of hard work. Steve loved poetry too much to put his least worthy efforts into the public conversation. 

Steve was a grand champion of other poets. He had an unfailing interest in others. He was the man we needed to have around when others spoke in code, euphemism, and fuzzy equivocation, Steve told his mind and cut to the chase. Likewise, he said his truth, as the saying goes these days. After a pause, the conversation would begin again, invigorated by Steve's skill at pulling the covers off those things --racism, exploitation, sexual inequality, militarism--that were obscured by babble and can. He taught his students to read a great variety of poets, learn a great many techniques honed by tradition, expand their notion of what poems can speak to, and find within the styles assimilated. The techniques mastered one's own voice as a writer who may tackle the subject with wit, originality, honesty, and great beauty.

One could argue with Steve about his passionate arguments against deliberately tricky poems. He considered the worst habits of late literary modernism--I adore my Eliot, cherish my Ashbery, I am invigorated by the rigor of Silliman, Armantrout, and Perelman-- but Steve made his case with the same sort of lyricism he brought to his poems. Steve felt that beauty was the expression of experience in ways that did not obscure the event and the memory; neither theory nor sentimentality would interfere with the sweet language he used to present the travails and noise and significant and minor frustrations of existence. Steve's best writing, which was prodigious, was about love, justice, lust, philosophical ironies that reduced, for the moment, the insurmountable hackery of what life in the city throws at you. Clarity of expression was Steve Kowit's genius--as wild as his poems became, as beautifully strung out as they could get on a metaphor or a pile-up of "then-what-happened?" that had the makings of an exceptionally hirsute shaggy dog story, Steve was in control of his instrument. He hated obscurantism and overly literary self-referencing and insisted that poetry is about the writer's engagement with the world they lived in, worked in, made love in, laughed and cried in, and not be a receptacle of meditations on its form. In conversation with him when I attended a workshop he conducted at San Diego State in the early eighties, I recall saying that he wasn't opposed to abstraction in poetry altogether. Not at all. What bothered him was the kind of writing that lay there, thick and more or less dormant, daring the reader to make sense of tangled syntax, private jokes and artlessly inserted intrusions from areas that offer more murk, not clarity. Poems either created the passion within the reader to think harder and deeper into the experience of their lives, or the poets failed in their Poetry was about the ear, not the footnote, not the end note. Poets needed to be in the world perfecting their craft, not in the study writing obscurities shared with only other obscure poets. Steve Kowit seemed like a force of nature, and even now, it's difficult to imagine a world without him.

I can still hear his voice each time we meet. I can still see him smiling, leaning in close, asking me if I was still "dry," even twenty-five years since my last drink. Likewise, I can still hear him telling me to proofread my poems and prose better. I can still remember him asking me to put a volume of my work together and send stuff out to the publishers for the love of God. Life is rewarded by the energy one puts into it. "Live" is a verb, after all, and Steve's message to anyone was to for those of us with things they want to do to get out there and live a little, take a stand, start a love affair, write a poem for your parents, get a job you actually like. Good things come if you work for them.  My glancing friendship with Steve Kowit was one of my best years as a San Diego poet.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

With Great Power Comes Liabilities

New Powers, New 'Do,' 'Big Secret' in SUPERMAN #41 | 

Superman has a new buzz cut in yet the latest re-imagining of the Man of  Steel. The tonsorial  alternation that works for me. His dark blue spit curl was fine through the fifties and the Sixties and most decades since, but it was an anachronism begging to be taken to the attic.The original idea, I suppose , was to have Superman retain a genuine purity one could ascribe to strong farm boys from Kansas in o our grandest Norman Rockwell fantasies. Lately, though, the hair has fallen prey to the artist's whim. Artist Jim Lee gave him a weed-whacker shaping that made him look like a Ken doll in a tight blue suit and a red cape. From what's been revealed, the new hair cut is short, spikey, the sort of  of  styled brevity that combat veterans when they resume their civilian existence. The image above indicates a Superman who gets convincingly pissed and is ready to rattle the skyline if  gets annoyed by evil doers or bad phone reception. 

The other matter of  Superman that 's been chewing up the bandwidth on comic book fan sites is his new power, the "Super Flare". An apparent extension of his already existing heat vision, this so called power has Superman, under great duress, expending all the solar energy stored in all of his cells at the same time. The downside, from what we've seen so far, is that results in the complete incineration of  everything around it ,and it leaves  Superman without powers.  Kal El is human, all too human for twenty four hours until he recharges and regains his abilities. We need to ask this question, though, all comic book fans in general and DC Comics partisans in particular: Is that super flare capacity really a "power" or is it a malady, something that flares up (pun intended) when stress becomes too intense? 

The difference is that a super power is an ability that the hero can control and use at will when the need arises; what's been shown so far for the power is that it is incredibly destructive when it is used (or goes off, rather) potentially laying waste to lives and property, and that it leaves Superman bereft of powers, vulnerable . We cannot assume that the super flare would always vanquish his foes. So the question becomes as to what practical use this trait is and whether it is something that Big Blue can learn to control and employ appropriately with less catastrophic results. I suspect that we've just opened the door for yet another Superman weakness, as if limitless amounts of kryptonite and undifferentiated brands of magic weren't enough. Superman too powerful? Set off the flare and lets see how he fends as a mortal. This can become a go-to device too easily. I'm interested to see what they do with the super flare, but it wouldn't be surprising that they've shot their wad.