Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Howl at Fifty

Busy tonight finishing the final (I hope) copy editing of a book of poems that will appear early next year, but I wanted to post a quick note about a big event coming up at the Center. This fall marks the fiftieth anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's first reading of his poem "Howl" in San Francisco. It was a reading that electrified its audience and proved to be a tipping point of sorts in our country's cultural history, one that changed the fifties, and helped create the cultural transformation of the sixties and seventies. The evening will feature the usual fabulous crew of local poets and readers, and, as our very special guest, Boston poet Richard Cambridge. Richard's a long-time activist in addition to being a fine poet - winner of the Allen Ginsberg Prize, in fact. It should be a memorable evening.

More on all this in the weeks between now and then, but I did want to get something up now for those who plan their entertainment early. December 16, 8:00 PM at the Black Mountain College Museum + Art Center. This is not-to-miss.

And now back to our regularly scheduled copy-editing.

(Cross-posted with minor edits from Eden Hall)

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In Memoriam JFK

It's been forty-two years since November 22, 1963, and I suppose most Americans now are simply too young to remember with any clarity the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas on that day. It's one, though, that I'll probably remember as long as I'm still around. I was standing on the balcony of my dorm in Chapel Hill, talking with friends, enjoying the clear fall afternoon, when someone yelled from inside that he'd been shot. We rushed inside to our radios - I don't remember that anyone had a TV in the dorm- and listened as the details became more clear. Eventually, I walked to campus - my dorm was on the southern fringes of the school, probably fifteen minutes from the main quad - and joined scores of my fellow students around the television in the student union to watch Walter Cronkite's saddened, sonorous account of the motorcade, the shots, the trip to Parkland Hospital, the death of the President. I remained close to that screen for most of the next week. It was my sophomore year, and I suppose the event might have opened my eyes a little to sophos, to wisdom, with its glimpse into history's dark, sometimes brutal, vagaries.

For all that we now know of his limits and weaknesses, Kennedy was a man who seemed to move from a vision of the best possibilities of the conflicted American spirit, and who also had a gift for inspiring others to act from their own best natures. His assassination was evidence that he also moved some to act from their very worst. He probably understood the risks; certainly his brother Robert did, and Dr. King did, after him. As we endure the unfolding corruption-drenched debacle of the current presidency, it's worth remembering that political leaders of courage can sometimes enlarge the sense of commonwealth and engender fresh possibilities in our common dialogue.

Thanks, JFK, for that.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Naropa Archives - and Much More

I've added several links to the page, and want to mention two of them in particular: one is to Jacket magazine, a great resource for poetry, including the New American Poetry, which, as I mentioned in the previous post, is published from Australia, and the other is to the Naropa Archive at Archive.org.

The Naropa archive contains audio of decades of readings and lectures from Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and the material is truly rich and diverse. From Allen Ginsberg to Michael Palmer, Eleni Sikelianos to Carl Rakosi, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to William Burroughs - even reading together - it's all there. While I've heard many of the poets included in person over the years (and even recorded them; more about that another day), I've enjoyed being able to check out some of my favorite poets, given the time-depth of the site, at very different stages in their work. There are some twenty recordings of Robert Creeley, for instance, from 1984 to 1999, and in them he addresssd issues as various as language poetry and eco-poetics, Aristotle on poetics and Robert Frost, among a host of other concerns, as his own thinking about the world evolved over the course of that fifteen years.

The parent site, Archive.org, is truly, literally, a-mazing. It's home to the Wayback machine, for instance, which allows you to visit a given web site as it existed in, say, 1997; I've used it to recover material that clients couldn't remember they'd ever had. It's home, too, of the Live Music Archive, an online source of free concert downloads from several hundred musical groups (27,399 concerts as of today). I first started frequenting the site to download recordings of Steve Kimock, a favorite guitarist (I'm listening to a great stage recording of a show from August 10, 2002, in fact, as I write), and have been back hundreds of times since. If you haven't explored it yet, do check it out; it's really the Internet at its best.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Poetry and the Calculating Engine

German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger has explored the use of computers to create poetry. There's an account of his work at Jacket, an online poetry magazine.

, by the way, is one of the best resources on the New American Poetry (and the new New American Poetry) I've come across on the web. It's published, of course, in, or from, Australia.

Not only did Enzensberger conceieve the program, he arranged to have the system to implement it built. Here's part of the Jacket account, which seems to have been written by John Tranter, Jacket's editor.

It is one thing to write a program, and quite another to built the hardware needed to execute and to present it. In June 2000, the machine was presented in Landsberg, Germany, at a poetry festival. Measuring 5,65 x I meter and constructed by Solari Ltd. of Udine in Italy at a cost of US$200 000, it looks like one of the displays used in airports to announce departures and arrivals. When an onlooker pushes a button, the lettered flaps turn with a whirling noise and a six line poem appears. At the next push of the button, this poem disappears forever and another one is produced.
The program is not only designed to guarantee grammatically and semantically correct texts; it aims to create an illusion of ‘sense’, since it would be facile to settle for an arbitrary mix of words in a kind of neo-dada replay.
And here a glimpse at what the English version of the system might produce:
To give the reader an idea of the kind of thing the machine will have to offer, here is a sample produced on the basis of random numbers gathered from the last digits of 36 Berlin phone numbers listed on page 802 of the directory:
I miss you, hot girl! Don’t lock me into the ash-can, and help me to sleep no more.
Gorgeous treasures all over the place. The others might hardly notice it.
Sloppy confessions: ‘The public are to neurotic basically.’ Women are perfect.
Silent businessmen fill our lives, and common sense runs amuck.
I listen. My magic is perfumed with rage. I giggle, I sing:
Fear not our parents glowing in the dark! Downstairs the country is doing fine.
Our spam poets seem not to be moved by Enzensberger's concern that the machine's operation produce "grammatically and semantically correct texts"; perhaps that's deliberate, or perhaps they're just not that far along yet. We'll see!

Incidentally, I've realized that the created texts embedded in our spam poets' messages are also visible, at least in two non-Microsoft email clients, in the HTML layer of the email; I'm not sure whether this is a bug, or, as they say, a feature.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

The School of Spam Poets?

The computer industry has over the years offered livelihood to a number of poets and writers (Ron Silliman comes to mind), myself included. Working with computers has always seemed to me not so very distant from poetry, notwithstanding that computers, as Fred Chappell once noted dismissively, use a "debased and barbaric language". Fred's doctorate, though, was earned by the compilation of a concordance, which is, after all, essentially a text database, so I wasn't convinced he was standing on much higher ground. Working with computers and working with poetry, at least in those early days, when one worked at the command line if one wanted to do almost anything at all, both required that one use language in special, non-ordinary ways, even if their ends were quite different.

Recent spam has convinced me that there's yet another poet, a procedural poet, or perhaps, even, a group of poets, who, sadly, find themselves working with developers that specialize in mass mailing software - which is to say, software for spam - or the spam mailers themselves. Knowing that I'd get to see the latest efforts by this poet or group of poets has almost been enough to persuade me to enjoy checking and filtering the vast quantities of email which arrive in my inbox each day. Almost.

Most people would never notice the work of this group. Email is nowadays created and sent in what, for lack of a better word, we usually call "layers". Originally, email consisted of just one layer: plain text, your message with no bells or whistles, no flashing lights, not even any images. With the development of HTML for use on the internet, another type of mail became possible, and mail programs quickly evolved to take advantage of it. Most mail clients, like Microsoft's Outlook Express, can handle both type of email. If there's an HTML layer, though, the email program will display it, and ignore the text layer, if there is one. It's in this text layer, which most people never see, that this group of procedural writers works.

The email arrives with innocuous subject lines: Photos, Pictures, Is It Funny, New Schedule. The HTML layer contains the usual junk, ads for Viagra, Cialis, and the like (though I found one recently that purported to be from a mortgage lender), but the text layer contains procedural compositions that have nothing to do with that content. Here's an example:

Is It Funny, from "Bobby Harrison" , received 10 November.

Big equate several. Begin mean century next three first, spend.
Metal paint his mile distant, fire. Written table will. Tell
produce, look. Early class car. Saw base, six how, event. Find
dictionary, flower night product must meet. Found son part often
beauty. Speak fish picture mind and dog can. Subject beauty,
push half please thing, energy. East half stead, found, usual.
Step cold, page.

Elliptical, of course, debased and barbaric, perhaps, but ... interesting.

Hard to divine the procedure applied here, partly because the work is so fragmentary that we can't identify the source text. This past summer, though, this author/group was working with a procedure that left enough of the text to locate its source in the work of Raphael Sabatini, author of Captain Blood, Scaramouche, and a host of other titles, mostly romances. I didn't record the subject lines or senders for that series, or make note of the HTML content, but here's a piece from that series:

that was ascending the companion. So engrossed had they been thatBy my leave, you'll remain awhile, the Captain ordered him.Spaniard fell back before him with suddenly altered countenanceMr. Blood got between the day-bed and the troopers.should thus come upon the Arabella at a time when, separated frombegan to speak. In a muted voice and briefly - much more brieflyof now or later.this gun will fire the answer. I make myself clear, I hope?and in the latitude into which Lord Julian had strayed this was aBut now it was observed that they were empty, save for the men whobear that in mind, Lord Julian. And now, ye greasy hangman, steptowards it, I confess; and you've shown your quality in doing it.Captain Blood ordered her crew to take to the boats, and landthem. They went in rags, some almost naked; they dwelt in squalor,he perceived - and only just in time - that he had best tread warily.the sound heart of a boy, and in that heart much love for Peter
The enjambed words "thatBy", "troopers.should", "him.Spaniard" reveal the seams of the procedure, show us where it broke the source text. These pieces arrived over a period of several months; I first noticed them on June 16th, and they stopped arriving, I believe, in August. Altogether I collected almost a hundred of them. For me, these piece have more resonance than the more recent work, and I consider them the high point, so far, in our anonymous poet's career. I hope one day he or she will find avenues of publication more appropriate to his/her talents. In the meantime, you might want to get an email program that reveals what's sometimes hidden in all that spam.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Applewhite Tonight at Malaprops

Durham poet James Applewhite appears tonight at Malaprops bookstore in downtown Asheville to read from his new Selected Poems. The reading begins at 7:00; there's a wine and cheese reception just before, beginning at 6:15.

Jim has taught English and writing classes at Duke since the late sixties, and before that taught at UNC-G. He started teaching in Greensboro just two years past his BA, when it was still styled “The Women’s College of the University of North Carolina”, a dated name indeed. Jim was on the faculty when I spent a semester there in the spring of 1967, and though I didn’t have him for a class, I got to know him otherwise. We in the writing program were a small, almost incestuously close-knit bunch, and we spent time together outside of class - at parties, in the dining hall, all over. It was a situation, as Jim said when we talked today, where “writing was uppermost”, and the combination of “fellowship and devotion to writing as art and craft was unique.” I would have to say Amen.

His Selected Poems, just released by Duke University Press, is a real accomplishment, and Jim’s taken the chance to do something besides just republish the best of his work over the years. He wanted, in fact, to “clarify issues”, as he says in his preface, and he’s reordered the way we’ll have to think about the sequence and internal relationships of his work. The new collection’s more chronological organization brings together poems that were, for various editorial reasons, relegated to different volumes, though composed from the same momentum, or simply omitted. The second section of the new book, for example, reassembles a collection of what Jim originally thought of as poems evoking spots of time, “permanent moments”, as he says, such as those the great English romantic poet Wordsworth, one of Jim’s favorites, often proposed in his poems, luminous intensities of persons in landscape of given earth. The fourth section contains poems that were left out of Following Gravity, a collection published in 1980, because the editor, Donald Justice, saw them as incongruous company for others in the collection.

The poems in all the book’s sections speak of authentic encounters with the lives of persons who, as Jim speaks of his grandfather in an early poem, “kept the old way in changing times”, whom he sees

Bowed to his handplow, bent-kneed, impassive,
Toiling in the sacrament of seasons.

They speak, too, of encounters with the collection of phenomena, rivers, trails, forests, and Time that we call Nature, a thing we half discover and half invent, as Wordsworth had it. Here’s an early poem that puts self in landscape to see what is found in both:


The sky is low and close and light is a mist.
Sunday makes shine a still more sultry water
In this summer air. Grass returns prodigal with seed.
These birds that perk and skip seem living souls.
Magnolia flowers are reminiscent of childhood and candles.
Past a line inscribed on leaves by a bobwhite’s whistle,
I suspect a different self like a nobler brother.
Mimosa trees in flower, piles of clouds
In an horizon without perspective, help me recall.
I sit on the hill of an avenue of trees, feeling
That I want to say hush, hush, to the traffic.
For a little while I feel close again to a person
Who one time existed under immensely tall trees.
A wind from where shadows are generating rain tells me
This day stands always in pools behind doors I have closed.
How have I closed away my best self and all of his memories?
Many of the tongues of grass are speaking to the sun,
Obscured for a moment, in a language of vapor from underneath.

The way that brings inner and outer worlds into unforced resonance is typical of much of Jim’s work. I could happily quote others – like “The Self, That Dark Star”, which approaches the relationship from a different angle, and explores, as any poet who’s awake will, the phenomenology of self, and what it “means” to be conscious; or the lovely, hymn-like “Light’s Praise”. It’s work that celebrates a deeply imagined coherence of self and world. The territory he opens is well worth a long visit. But tonight, I’ll get to hear Jim read his work in his own voice. Why not come too, meet a unique Southern master of his art, and hear for yourself?