September 27, 2003

Brief Notes on Recent Books and Two Possums

A new series by the University of California edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris has commenced with publications by the Mazatec mushroom "wise woman," or, poet, María Sabina and surrealist André Breton. The series is important for gathering a diverse range of un- or under-published works of world modernism into English. The Sabina selections, for instance, present a translation of her oral autobiography Vida and folk chants along with "commentaries and derivations" by botanist R. Gordon Wasson, Henry Munn, Anne Waldman and others. For Sabina, language reveals God, through mushroom trance, chant and visions. Her practice with the "saint children," as she refers to the fungi, reflects religion, spiritual knowledge and practical affairs of the community. Besides local physical and psychic traumas, her words relate a language practice integrated into the solid fabric of daily life. Her humility in the presence of these awesome powers is extraordinary, as are her relations of Mazatec experience in the fields and villages of her native Oaxaca.


I haven't read them yet, but Atelos has two new books out now: Tis of Thee by Fanny Howe and Poetical Dictionary by Lohren Green. Earlier this year this press released Brian Kim Stefans' Digital Poetics, discussed by other bloggers and hopefully to be reviewed soon here. Howe's book is the text of a play performed in 1997 in San Diego. You can hear the play on an accompanying CD with music by Erica Sharp and Miles Anderson.


Also in: Some Values of Landscape and Weather (Wesleyan) by Peter Gizzi. I haven't read this yet either, though I have seen parts in other formats. His particular, vivid phrasings and "raw emotion," to quote M. Perloff from the back of the book, have always appealed to me. Here's a small sampling from "It Was Raining In Delft:"

A cornerstone. Marble pilings. Curbstones and brick.
I saw rooftops. The sun after a rain shower.
Liz, there are children in clumsy jackets. Cobblestones
and the sun now in a curbside pool.
I will call in an hour where you are sleeping. I've been walking
for 7 hrs on yr name day.
Dead, I am calling you now.
There are colonnades. Yellow wrappers in the square.
Just what you'd suspect: a market with flowers and matrons,
Beauty walks this world. It ages everything….(81)


Clayton Eshleman's Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underwold is out from Wesleyan also. This is an inspired and knowledgeable investigation of Paleolithic cave art in Europe through poetry and essays. As a poet visiting Lascaux, Les Eyzies and other sites in southern France since the 1970s, Eshleman presents a rich and varied examination and interpretation of some of the vast quantities of imagery found deep in these underground limestone cathedrals. Studied in the archaeological literature of Leroi-Gourhan, Marshak and others, he approaches this marvelous imagery with fresh and original insights. He considers the psychic origin, religious ceremony, sexual will and animal relations of the cave painters and that imagery's influence on the present. Part personal meditation, travelogue, dream analysis, psychoanalysis and art history, this book is a unique and valuable dig into that underworld "record" of images abandoned to darkness for so long. See Skanky Possum issue 8 for the introduction to this book. I'll have more to say on it later.


From the Notebook:

Two Possums

one walked up
behind a Ford
Explorer and
along a sage

another later
crossed the street
under cars and
into somebody's
lawn, dank
underbelly round
with fuzz not
really fur—
lost it
in the shadows

Posted by Dale at 11:24 PM | Comments (429)

September 08, 2003

An Open Letter to Joan Houlihan

I sent the following e-mail to Joan Houlihan a few moments ago. She has been writing a series of uninformed and stupid articles at Web del Sol. I've ignored most of them but she mentioned Skanky Possum in a recent attack on Fence. See the article at for the larger context.

Dear Joan,

After reading your "post-post dementia" article today I wondered out loud with my co-editor at Skanky Possum, Hoa Nguyen: "is she brain-damaged?" "She," let's be clear, since you need such clarity and "coherence," is you, Joan Houlihan. This isn't meant ad hominem. It's a real question. Your obsession with meaning and coherence is foolish when we're saturated at every moment with an over abundance and over statement of meaning and coherence. Perhaps, actually, it's only in meaninglessness new life and energy will emerge from the dead weight our culture sloughs.

I won't waste time addressing most of your asinine and labored arguments. I just want to make a few comments regarding your gross stupidities and generalizations.

For one, it's hilarious that Skanky Possum is considered by you an "avant-garde-establishment journal." I mean, it's an honor to register on your "post-post dementia" radar. A day after George Bush sold us more security in the Middle East for 87 billion dollars I see nothing but dementia on the domestic landscape. Halliburton's "meaning" and "coherence" escalates a decline in human relations, meaningful or not—whatever your definition. What is meaningful in a post-human, post-American global economy fuelled by fear, terror and authoritarian claims on personal and domestic rights? From the academic halls to the littered bus stop behind our house, we live in a nation really beyond dementia. We're in retreat from reality because it's hideous to behold. And if poetry begins to look more and more like the complicated screens on CNN, it's because that's the world most people live in. That projected reality is more complex and dangerous than the static narrative voids you might embrace. Either way, mainstream verse, Halliburton, CNN—it's all a dead end anyway. Time to find new sources of hope!

I'm sorry. This probably doesn't make much sense to you. Let's take another approach. There are things about Fence I don't like either. Sometimes the poetry doesn't work for me because it's boring, uninspired, dull-witted and formulaic in ways that are different from poetic formulas you might appreciate. There's a lot to say about the drivel presented as poetry on both sides of the mainstream and post-avant (Ron Silliman's term) fence. I don't understand your reactionary reduction of argumentation, as if semantic issues alone were at stake when it should be our breath and blood. Fence sometimes reflects a certain grad school nullity of issues, and its editorial commentary can be rather uninspired and careless. But it also presents interesting and occasionally useful constellations of poetics based in the experience of contemporary culture. It registers with some egalitarian bias a world, like it or not, that is actual, active and fluid with crosscurrents of ideas, perceptions and integrated claims for language in this new century.

You claim that Fence, New American Writing, Slope, 3rd Bed and Skanky Possum "contain a poetry and an implied or stated editorial aesthetic that posits itself as a rejection of the "mainstream" poetry ethic, that is, of the poetry that existed from last year all the way back to Beowulf, the kind of poetry that favors parsable syntax, drama and story, tension and resolution, epiphany and symbolism, connected imagery, strong, recognizable voice or narration, and some impact of either an intellectual or emotional nature." Actually, historically, the writers we publish and the work we most admire present no more radically different challenges to contemporary poetry audiences (small to be sure) than did Chaucer, Herrick or Coleridge to theirs. If you can't see the connection, it's your failure of understanding and deep reading in the literature of the past. There are clear links and relationships from Herrick say through Williams, Stein, Creeley and even Charles Bernstein.

Speaking of Bernstein, it's ironic to see Skanky Possum mentioned in your article. While he managed the Poetics Listserv at Buffalo in the late '90s, I developed a reputation as being anti-Language for my critical and public (sometimes asinine) challenges and critiques of Bernstein and other Language-oriented writers. And to this day I hold critical reservations about much of that work. But I would hold it up with laurels and sing the praise of Language Poetry in opposition to your static, inactive ideals of poetry. You represent in the words of Bernstein the "Official Verse Culture," which is no more interesting than Ford commercials, and far less intelligible to me. I often wonder how an adult in this country can still be so afraid of issues of economy, politics, the occult and anything else located in the particularities of our moment in history. Poetry is a complex occasion of forces. Those forces alone drive and determine the poem. Anything short of those diverse forces fail totally to engage in language at this point. How is it someone can pay their money to line up and look at Picasso's Guernica but they can't read something as innocuous as Fence without paroxysms and sputterings of disapproval? Speaking of tradition, there were people once who thought language was God, and its movement alone through the world gave it meaning and relation. Art, poetry and music at their best seek a restoration of an awareness of the world as an active, living space—every motion, movement or thought rich in correspondence and relations of diverse, comprehensive meanings. The word perhaps is the most intimate germ of exposure we have. We are interested in limits, exposure and the true testings of ourselves in the world to achieve a coherence stretched through the Unknown wilderness of American experience. The intensity of meaning, its stretched possibilities, engage the kinetic field of human relations as deeply now as Coleridge's mysterious and lovely "Frost at Midnight," say. The kind of stasis in the poem you promote is equal only to Death, and that is something you can save for the next big conference or whatever it is you're aspiring to.

I want to stretch your perceptive modus, which is the issue here. But I'll take another approach instead. Your arguments represent one path within the academic and mainstream publishing markets against another strain, Language poetry and other so-called avant-garde poetics, equally increasingly institutionalized within established formats. Skanky Possum receives funding only through its subscribers and other random though generous patrons. Our allegiances are to vital works of poetry as they are made manifest within the climate of America we share. In addition to a decline of meaning—not just in poetry, but throughout the culture generally—you might consider the loss of feeling and deadening of affect that plagues so many aspects of our culture. Educate yourself on the diverse forms surrounding us. Please consider these complex occasions of forces before marching forward again with your demented essays on poetry. If you want specifics on these forces, find out yourself. Like Blake said, "To create a little flower is the labour of ages."

In the meantime, editors at Fence, Skanky Possum, New American Writing and Slope can "Listen to the fools reproach! it is a kingly title!"

Dale Smith
editor Skanky Possum

Posted by Dale at 06:33 PM | Comments (652)