Category Archives: Poetry

infidel poetics

The anonymous lyric, including the riddle and the metrical charm,
appears to have been gradually eclipsed by the emergence of an elite and
self-consciously literary tradition of poetry, but these ancient modes and
forms did not vanish altogether, nor are they absent from the dominant
tradition. Rather, as these poetic models slipped into the shadows, they
became part of a vital and complex vernacular tradition: spells, oaths,
lullabies, and nursery rhymes; yet also curses, toasts, tongue twisters,
namings, recipes, work songs, vendors’ cries, and beggars’ chants; in addition
to counting and alphabet songs, love tokens, spitting words, insults,
and the like. ” –Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance by Daniel Tiffany

Welcome to the Club

It’s hard to know how to either quantify or qualify universalism, because so many communities make a claim to at least a cultural universalism that obscures interconnections with other communities. Truth (although the word “truth” is rarely used) becomes the cornerstone for an enclosure for–to put it in vernacular–a fandom. This also includes the fandom of a professional or semiprofessional activity, a fandom of making: books, games, short films, whatever.

The truth claim is a limitless resource (endless fields of possibility–newness and surprise and innovation).

The time/attention paid to a given subject of a fandom/subculture is a limited resource (the sorter’s dilemma, particularly in the early 21st century). There is only so much one can get to.

These two work in a push-pull to mark differences between different truth claims. And in the realm of personal attention, there are of course winners and losers.

In the business world, they call it “siloing”. Vertical structures of knowledge–which then lead to control and access toward certain lexicons about that knowledge. Which in itself can be gatekeeping.

Of course the difference between apprenticeship and overspecialization needs to be emphasized. The former, a knowledge and practice of a craft; the latter, a way to control a larger narrative as to what’s important and thus cultivate barriers.

Trying to move between subcultures can create a situation where your credit is only good at the company store of a certain genre or field of expertise. And I do think that social media can exacerbate this issue; where people have a larger quantity of information to sift through, time becomes an even more precious resource. This might be slightly tautological but I think it has the possibility to accelerate overspecialization as a way of “standing out.”

Here’s a few examples of what the hell I’m talking about.

Pro tip: You see this in poetry a lot, since poetry has little else except cultural capital to traffic in, so various poetry communities create exotic mechanisms of exchange, much like a variance swap in finance.

This is more of an inverted example but when Jeff “I Assassin Down the Avenue” Tweedy or Billy Corgan or whatever semi-famous musician wants to publish a book of poetry, there is no apprenticeship to speak of. This is an example of a press using famousness as a way to garner any type of attention for a book buyer (both on the level of a reader and a bookstore). And, well, fair enough–one can understand now-defunct Zoo Press trying to grab the brass ring with Tweedy (this is the press, you’ll remember, that didn’t pick a winner for a contest but kept all the money). Even Faber and Faber (re: Corgan) needs to gain any advantage they can. This however requires the world pretending that Jeff Tweedy is a poet. I mean, yes, in a technical sense, sure. But in terms of the hundreds of other poets out there hunched over laptops, churning away at a vocation and life-calling. None of this is to disparage Tweedy’s talent as a musician and songwriter, by the way. But cutting to the front of the line happens all the time because it’s easy, and most people don’t care–because of readers’ overspecialization in things that are Not Poetry.

With fiction, you see this push and pull on a macro scale with the endless “genre vs. mainstream” discussions that still go on. (Still.) There are still some arenas (like the Minnesota Book Awards!) that treat realism as normative, yet at the same time show attention to literary works that use genre tropes. Actual SF/F genre stories can still create bewilderment. This is why you will find, say, an MFA program that will kinda accept work and writers that traffick in “weird” fiction, but only of a certain type, ones that accept and not question the truth claims of the subculture and that does not contain spaceships therein. It has to be weird in the right ways; i.e., in ways that reflect the tastes of “realism subcultures” of the literary world. (You will find this in different reading strategies: to grossly generalize, a person in the genre and an AWP goer can read the same science fiction story in very very different ways.) Conversely, the SF/F field can sometimes (although not always) be reluctant to embrace interesting work that, while clearly SF’nal or fantastic, doesn’t push the correct buttons (scientific, mythopoetic, or otherwise). A complaint you might hear is: “this literary writer didn’t know how to world build!” Which might not have been what the writer was interested in; but again, we are dealing with a game of expectations when there is limited time to parse through differing writing strategies. And it goes beyond mere tropes–it is ultimately about world-view, or even an ideology as to what the purpose of writing is in the first place.

Before this devolves into yet another session of “Hey, why aren’t there more things written that I like?“, it’s important to ask: Why does this matter anyway? For me, two things come to mind. it First, frustration when I see different subcultures reinventing each other’s wheels. From a post on a somewhat different issue, Emily Short here talks about contemporary game designers from the persepctive of the interactive fiction community:

I see the value of our past. At GDC I heard more than one talk that presented as new information observations about choice, consequence, narrative, and puzzle structure that have been well-discussed here for nearly two decades. There is a great deal of experience and craft knowledge about IF that deserves to be carried forward from this community, not lost, even if the community itself is changed beyond recognition.

This is a great example of “apprenticeship” (the care taken in craft, accreted through many different people as a form of collective knowledge) as mentioned before. Taking the time to go into the “archives” of another culture does take time, but it can be immensely rewarding (and humbling).

Secondly, it sucks to be ignored. It sucks to be ignored when you think you have something to say. It sucks having to prove yourself and to jump through hoops that have little to do with the cultural endeavor at hand. Again, this isn’t about not learning the ropes and one’s craft–that does take time, and patience. I think it’s more about opportunity to begin that journey in the first place, and recognition that people who are “outsiders” have their own skills and talents to offer. And that it’s important to encourage younger writers not to overspecialize, to be able to wander, to not have an action plan and an “official website” and a chipper yet PR-focused Twitter account right out of the gate. In fact it’s okay not to have any plan at all–aside from doing exactly what you love, which might not be one single thing at all.

So in the midst of this, what would an actual universalism look like? Is that even possible? How do we make this subcultures more porous? And how do we innovate in our writing without having to rely on a (modernist) paradigm of avant-garde rupture, or a postmodern paradigm of denying that there are truth claims in literature, however provisional they may be?

LATE EDIT: I know I have to unpack more what I mean by “universalism”, or a “truth process” for that matter. Bear with me.

barely yours

‘Jack Spicer did not reserve his critique of literary journals to “major” venues. In fact, he was outspoken on all forms of literary production, high and low. After receiving an unsolicited copy of the independent newsletter Floating Bear, for instance, Spicer responds by politely asking them not to send another issue and proceeds to critique their lack of either poetry or politics, signing the letter “Barely yours.”’ (source)

How to Succeed at Writing inside the Upper Middle Class

Be a writer. Opportunities exist. You will be rewarded.

Youth is important at first, especially when you are young. Those ambitions will serve you well in college. Your precocity–especially if you are a man–gives you a natural base for success at writing. Precocious ideas become an extension of maleness. But DON’T WORRY–even when you get older, being older becomes important.

Move to different cities. Experience them. Only go to the Midwest, however, if you go to school there or are invited to speak. And then get out as fast as you can. Use acronyms like “LES” in your biographical statements.

Go to conferences. You will be invited. Others will have to pay–and they have the money to pay, and even though you have the money to pay too, it will be better for you. Confer with others. There is a restaurant inside the hotel. Often there is more than one restaurant inside the hotel. There is a health club. If you write, they will pay. You will go places. You will go to other countries. Trans-nationalism is the world’s greatest gift to you. You will talk about your writing. There will be a reception. You will stand and talk.

Perhaps you will even write about your travels. This can make its appearance in your next book. Always look ahead.

You can always change the names.

Eventually people will listen to what you have to say. Eventually people who have written less than you and published less will ask favors of you. Assess these judiciously. Consider “favor” as a limited natural resource, like zinc or tungsten. Extract it carefully. But appear humble about it! And never forget the balance of accounts. One of the best ways to exchange favor is to teach. The students will come and go. But it’s the conferences themselves that remain, year after year, as your closest compatriots. Flirt. Exchange promises. Drink. As the years pass it almost appears like the same gin and tonic is in your hands, an everlasting cup. Everyone is getting younger, and soon it’s time to go to bed.

And when you die, you can know that you have succeeded. You will have the material to prove it: a few chapbooks, a couple of out-of-print books from defunct presses, the author copies still in an unsealed box in your garage, preserved like an Egyptian tomb.

The Self-Self-Referential

In an age of unending information, basing one’s work on a past of referentials can seem foolhardy (in America). One, educations are getting worse. Two, even nominally good educations will tend to miss a lot. We are no longer in medieval universities. There is little use (or should this be in quote marks?)” in including subtle references to the minor plays of Shakespeare, or to Sun Ra, or to Lorrine Niedecker. Unless your reader happens to be a specialist, even in a general sense.

And yet sometimes with this lack of utility…there can be an excess of pleasure. But it can also create despair in the writer. If the references are unheeded, then what is the use? The audience–already small–winnows.

I suppose this is also how the Decemberists got popular. Their relying on this.

Jennifer Moxley on The Structure

“Like many people, Marx’s critique of capital was my first structuralist revelation, the first time I thought, oh my, structure, it’s controlling everything! But of course nuance is key here. You know how gloomy you get when you first realize you are determined? Whether you feel determined by patriarchy or capitalism or whatever, a gloom overtakes you. You ask: how will I live, what can I do?! Sometimes it seems that what then goes wrong is that you start to feel at war, even in peacetime. You get this kind of extreme, martyr, war-like response to it, even if you are privileged, educated, writing poetry, etc. It can be a self-indulgent trap. You start failing to experience what you’re experiencing because you’re seeing everything through an ideology that’s supposedly critiquing ideology, so it’s just a trap, a maze.

I feel, again as an artist, to embrace one ideology and just use it as a kind of crib sheet on how to respond to situations is a disaster. I mean, we know it’s a disaster, because state-controlled art is horrible. It loses individuality, which is the only thing that we’ve gained in all these years of so-called “progress.” The free life of the mind, the true individual, is always at risk, so to just throw it out the window because you’ve figured out that some things are determined seems to me a mistake. I still believe that the individual can be self-determined at some level within the structures. At the same time, when it comes to language, all this goes out the window . . .”

from Talking Poetics: Dialogues in Innovative Poetry, via Isola di Rifiuti

David Jones and Anathemata

This poem by Welsh Catholic artist and writer David Jones (1895-1974) is one of the more remarkable long-form poems I’ve read in awhile. Probably best known in America for his World War I hybrid ficiton-poem piece In Parentheses, The Anathemata was first published in 1952. It is subtitled “fragments of an attempted writing”, and is itself only one part of what he intended to be a much larger piece, portions of which were published later in his life.

The Anathemata is sprawling and multi-temporal–it hops and skips throughout the entire fabric of a world whose epicenters are London and Wales. The past finds its future in the words, and vice versa. The lines are heavily accentual based, and deserve to be read aloud.

One unique feature of the poem is its copious use of footnotes. Nearly every little detail of unusual word choice or historiography or reference is put in the footnotes, which makes for a rich sub-poem of the poem itself. Normally, I really really don’t care for this type of approach to poems; I am far more comfortable with letting the poem speak for itself. (Related pet peeve: at a poetry reading, a poet spending more time on the introduction to a single poem than the poem itself.)

However, in this case David Jones makes it work (which proves that no rules are ever writ in stone). Why? Because the poem itself is about the fraying threads of mid-20th century life connected to a nearly lost culture. And Jones is using the footnotes themselves to augment this feeling of loss. (Because there is so much lost.) Why was a London church named St. Mary Stainer? What the hell is the Oaze? (Oaze Deep, a spot in the Thames’ mouth.) He is presenting the circumnavigations of his language (indeed, much of the dialogue and back and forth of the poem is in a sailors’ cant) as an offering, a set of findings. These things might very well disappear, he is letting the reader know.

And in 2012, sixty years later, I’m pretty sure most of them have already. Our culture is far different now from the High Modernist theopoetics of Jones. It is one of surfaces and not abysses. Most in the poetry world of pure, overlapping countercultures now would consider this an unmitigated blessing. And yet there is something deeply moving about Jones’ unwillingness to let the past go–all the while stitching the past to the present. He is not an antiquarian; he doesn’t consider himself “in the wrong era.” So the Anathemata never drifts into cloying sentimentality for a bygone era.

One final and perhaps curious footnote–I did find some echos of probably my favorite poet, J.H. Prynne, in the Anathemata. And it should be the other way around for sure, as Prynne didn’t start publishing books until the late 60s. But there’s really a similar fierce streak of diction that I picked up on. In certain isolated passages of The Anathemata it read like apocrypha from Prynne’s mid to late-70s work, in that its sensibilities were purely encoded in the thrust of the diction itself. And though he sublimates it more, Prynne’s obsessions with history are at least the equal of Jones’.

Here is a passage to whet the whistle (taken from this New York Review of Books look at the poem from 1963):

Before the drift was over the lime-face.
Sometime between the final and the penultimate débâcle. (Already Arcturus deploys his reconnoitering
chills in greater strength: soon his last Putsch on any scale.)
Before this all but proto-historic transmogrification of the
Just before they rigged the half-lit stage for dim-eyed Clio to step
with some small confidence the measures of her brief and lachrymal pavan.

I have no idea what Prynne would think of David Jones, to tell the truth, but I would be curious to know the answer.

Here I give Mr. Jones the final word from the preface of the book, delineating its theses much better than I could:

The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is, valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. But there is a time factor affecting these signs. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase…. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.

OK now I can finally return this book to the library!

The Myth (poem)

(a sort of companion piece to “The Men”)

The Myth

An empty picturebook
contains a rhetorical question

Would you buy a hole
if you knew it was haunted

Joes arise from the flank
They have phones they have axes

It’s a pretty decent crowd
They knock the wind out

A red limb points out:
The obvious

Why doesn’t anyone understand?
The obvious

Hold up
Something better is near

These are my people
Where are my people

Why We’re Not in the Streets

I had written this poem in the spring, but it seems apropos to post it now…


weighed down by November snow
these pines have broken
my child is not an open book
snow falling on an iceless lake
this is the secret salt

lights lead up the cabin stairs
gold cocktails prime the blue
the sight of these reflections
across the clear mist
sealing the footprints away

the dogs are restless
I’m afraid they will be shot
for less than a revolution
first vespers next black tea
concentrate then gravitate

oh late woodland empire
smoke frozen in the pipes
sink the shortness of breath
where life has gathered
owned trucks go all out

my child is not yet alive
crawling beneath canoes
millfoil mind empties
walleye termination blooms
every trap is a revolt

cinnabar resin sticks to hands
rot so driftless
as a vigilant substance here
stars like the baby teeth of child soldiers
will to be feral

I can carry you
inside a dormouse of dew
where the galaxy we don’t know
wells into its other being
as property and wilderness

Gog of Minnesota wordle

After turning in my new novel (of Vermeer), it’s nice to switch for a while to poetry. I’ve been pecking away at this long quasi-narrative poem called “Gog of Minnesota” for a few years now. At about 50 pages in, this is what the Wordle (I keep trying to spell it Worlde) of it is–an interesting tool for poetry, especially for long works in which there’s a lot of repetition of phrase and theme.

Beyond This Life

One more! One more.

There Is a Lamp

Yes, another one. Revising this to the drum generator in 4/4 time was actually very helpful.

Always good to have a new hobby.

A Night Inside the Lost Mountain

Goofing around with YouTube, random beat generators, open source sample databases, and poem fragments in iambic tetrameter will lead to this:

Definitely the “first pancake is always the lumpiest” syndrome going on here, but there you go.

John’s World

(This is more “drafty,” I guess…but these poems have been my enjambed journalings of late.)

John’s World

I’m not a beloved disciple.
What is the definition?
file tide lost,
once remembered
John’s world
A prayer dislocates
That hounds us. I’m
an affection
addict, there’s
no getting around it.
You and I
are not in Jerusalem,
did you know that? in a
garbage pit.
aren’t agincourt incubus.
There are always
depending on lasting,
impenetrable fortunes of owners…

a far cry,
called to not pounce

Through any generation,
you can sit anywhere
you’d like. Ancient
history full of singer-songwriter
techniques In the first
century these tempers of the future
relied on The Name to fill in
the cracks and dawn—spacious
backstory as
John’s world,
the long road
to the immortal ringing in the ear. My first
reflection is to
Rising out to meet the stories that
were never told
I don’t expect
anyone to help me.
But underneath “mental
health,” can splendor firsthand
be? It sort of spills out…
where was
my temple destroyed again?
Books will die,
yes, but that’s not enough!
Caw, caw! invention
of writing
Bark, bark!
agriculture shrieks
…other voices try to end up with more.
left coughing,
welling up, intend to project
my patience back into
the community I don’t know,
with John, who was
illiterate, breath without a biography.
Those loves smolder and
inhabit little forget-
me-nots. Then
I shroud my
empty pill bottles in coyote
droppings and eke
out a living on
the edge of union.

In the Vulgate (new poem)

In the Vulgate

I don’t want to be fine.
The desperation
of a presence incites.
the existent secrets in a coffeehouse jam band, in the fundraiser for a child’s cancer (a pancake dinner, a silent
auction) a flyer, and the strip mall will last for a while, maybe
past my life.
Are we to spurn the redeemed verse his exorcism and exactitude?
No, I haven’t
called for that.
The venison
crawls out of the woods, well…it can’t really be called a woods anymore,
mostly brush, thistles sharp,
interspersed with trees too
young to remember the hangings all over. The creek dividing through
with mercury alive in it, cesium
the roadmap of the water. The
wild rings curate instead
of cure.

The venison crawls rubs out of the blackberries, which are fruits,
but also weeds.

And the family, some of them anyway, will come into
the pinnacle. I urinate
homonculi of Zoloft commercials into catfish farms.
purpose of plastic
capsules? Spiritual blessings winter in the holes. Crafted long and short. Walk
away but then…return to hear more and more.
Candles flicker oft in 3 below.
Have you
tried the concierge service to stop this wind? Will
mindful activities dance in
our thoughts while smurfs cake their gums with dishwashing
jobs and try to get the decongestant
out of the gold-leaf? If
I saw say those
faces it would not have been enough. I would have
kept walking inside. “the art of marriage: a six
session video event” on
the bulletin, we
are a strip mall of dogwalking plumbers
phoning it in.
Face me.
The rancor
is mum and the speakers won’t be coming on until we are
gone, I mean really gone, uninsured
against catastrophic injury.

Then herons labor and labor.

Park in the back end, however,
see where they go in and put on hats, aprons, those metal
doors with alphanumeric codes are
the shrines.
Where the trash leaves, the uneaten black bags in concord.
My sneakers caked with salt
from the plows,
I vie with sardines.
The bough came from the swamp
with zero fanfare. It lanced
all in a stark tongue.
Touched by the tadpoles carrying it. I’ll lie down here just
a couple more minutes,
as it turns out.

Notes from Richard Diebenkorn

I came across these notes on a book of Richard Diebenkorn‘s paintings, and thought that they have a certain transference to writing, especially poetry. Happy new year!

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued–except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5. Don’t “discover” a subject–of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored–but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

In Poetry’s Defense

Letter of Philip Sidney, New Year’s Day, 1578

Version 2

(But wait there’s more. I’m writing prose as well, I swear. This is from a form known as a ballade, not to be confused with a power ballad.)

Version 2

What does it add? pearls, moon rob
Sounds; There calling forward my cousin…
forgiveness for all human mobs!!
(rapt>> apart in common muslin)
Garden resistant for the thoughts in
restoration; let me tether.
Will I be that gentle weather
unfired/At the crowd nearby?
Derringer molts, addresses nether;;
I live on: 1 Asterisk’s Eye.

The Whippoorwills (poem draft)

These poems, in between prose bouts, are helping me work through things that I don’t discern yet. The different yearnings couple with the disparate styles. One mood is not like the other. Quatrains between poems can be unalike as well. There are inside-out narratives that aren’t secrets.

The Whippoorwills

*first baptist air

The trees of Ohio are not in this guidebook/cross/hill
God, I try to be abandoned and bend
(There’s no way Is there no way?) I see
spaghetti dinners of Red Scouts and weep. tape/vice

drive out where I alewife. Living bark but
dead ravines. I soak. These whipoorwills think it’s
habitat pinata lovefeast
/indigo the way they

keep striving outward into their captures/what/why.
That’s where we are. You,
I’m not.
It’s not God I’m referring to here, Carrier, anymore.

Chains/wins/wine group the rain species of Ohioana.
The calumny
And I am leaving tomorrow without
my splintered send-off.

Either you won’t or my covenant can’t.
The plane/desire/drives
scratches out the
trees. So they wait. Either you won’t or

the folk of jars are trying too hard.
Somehow my gloss. Error
empowers information. Do you know/x/x?
We will travel wait-East, though lone.

*the continent rings

God wouldn’t die sparingly
so I could find the easiest
(It will not be so bad when it’s over.)
Awful courage in the midst

(…these broad and faceless connections where
everyone climbs into the Sweater
of the Wolf.) Deep admiration for math
solutions claws to one surface. I regret/

Whippoorwills have no conscience/appear scratched
True nightjars forgive too slowly the worst
thoughts In which they see the older
Ohio, die in wanton reserve

of You: sun, You do steer though far
The pilot, /(all the while foul)/
the lightless skull.

And more woodworking on the hill.
Though you won’t see anymore how it branches.
/turn this. This free caring has
blacktooth to throw away/a high mountain/a price.

As the spirit untrafficks its writhing
Be mirrored as the least gray,
be countless people also, state as much as
you can handle.

*lust’s nests

To hear and grace the one for you once
only, in a groan that falls away.
Then every year starts another blunt
You’re the ground comma. Or

your favorite song heard
only once and never spoken of again/hours.
Mid-beauty is environment/the most free
parking. But you’ve carried airports arc before. The

comic strip diseases enter history of sap biter.
Birds were here long before/absent but here
And I’m hundreds of miles… God doesn’t/mind
Oh wow, not what I meant at all.

*the claim

waiting for baggage–
you won’t know
I know less, it’s

less rule again, guess/wine
One life
starting, and

another is yet another
My attention misses
matter. Full and empty matter.
I heard your/weeping

volumes in the
foundation/replanted from Ohio.
Recorded vineyards/passing
They rotate Small from

sugarclouds, real in whippoorwills’
your cries. Give to stolen It
falls this wave, /the
next, loves in crumbs.

The Men (poem draft)

The Men

The men came out of the woods
And we were children
And didn’t know what to do to them
We watched them from the window
How would they die
In the cold
We thought
They were walking toward us
We closed the blinds
We are not here
The farmhouse is not here

The men put us in their overcoats
Speckled eggs we were in the overcoats
They took us back to the woods
In the woods there was a steeple
And cars
And an ice cream maker

The men were cold
We found our way out of the woods
The blinds fell
We held their hands