Sunday, February 26, 2006

And, in a strange occurrence of simultaneity, in Shadow Train.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

I have new poems up on Can We Have Our Ball Back?. Of my work, this is some of the stuff I can say I like without significant embarrassment.


The "New Storytelling" (part 1)

“The New Storytelling” isn’t a very catchy name, but the trend in music and theater I’m writing about isn’t exactly a movement… yet.

In some theater and music of roughly the last decade, text has been given a new status. One could probably trace an interesting history of the role of text throughout the history of theater; it might begin with the Greek (and Shakespearean) moves between speech as “just part of the action,” as narration of what happens “outside the play,” and as poetic rumination (thinking out loud about something, usually a broad question or issue). Such a history might include later tendencies toward realism in dialogue (the first part of the trio of functions above), or toward a version of this where dialogue has the entire status of the action (as in Oscar Wilde). Modern and postmodern developments would include the odd literary language of Harold Pinter’s early plays and the heightened absurdity of the dialogue in work by Mac Wellman. I think the writing of Wallace Shawn, Robert Ashley, David Greenspan, and Rick Burkhardt is contributing something new: a focus not only on the telling of stories, but on the fact of that telling, and on what it means to relate an anecdote or a narrative in contemporary social and aesthetic contexts. I’ll briefly discuss some works by these writers here, and then present a tentative summary of aspects common to works of “New Storytelling.”

Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner, which premiered in 1996, takes to an extreme a way of writing that has come to make up an increasing proportion of each of his scripts over the course of his playwriting career: a mass of text, attributed to a character, without any essential requirement of staging in the usual sense, or at least without any built-in relation to what’s physically happening onstage. Almost the entire play is narrated to the audience. Three characters (Jack and Judy, who are/were married, and Howard, Judy’s father) present conflicting accounts of the breakup of the marriage, the takeover of their country by a brutal right-wing dictatorship, the wrecking of the economy, and the execution of hordes of activists, intellectuals, and nearly everyone associated with them, all in the past tense. This past tense comes to seem “impossible” when we find out that both Judy and Howard have been killed at some point in the story. The stories are told “out of time;” once the point in the story has been reached at which Judy is executed, she stops participating in the telling, which seems to make sense—but the fact that she “was” dead already by the present time of the beginning of the telling destabilizes this sense. The setup of the play splits time into the temporality of narrating and the distinct temporality of what’s narrated, and Judy’s death and the loss of her narrative become analogies for one another, rather than simply the same event. Though both Jack and Judy tell about the collapse of their relationship (which Jack abandons), Judy relates it to the political events that lead to the death of her father and their friends (as well as to her own death), making it seem like Jack has run away to save his own skin, while Jack ascribes it to the inconsistency and smugness he sees in the liberal, upper-class literary milieu of “Howard, Judy, and the whole gang of them,” a milieu he once wanted to participate in but felt “kept out of.” His story is one of cutting away all the bullshit, admitting to himself that he really doesn’t like poetry (and claiming that no-one else does, either), and settling into an existence free of interpersonal obligation. The fact that it’s Jack’s tale of ostensible personal liberation that gets the last word is the salient dark fact of the play; we’re left thinking about whether we’d be the kind of storyteller who seals the fate of resistance to oppression by turning its memory into an anecdote in the tale of the formation of our personal narrative.

The Designated Mourner is also written in a strange literary language. Though much of the text is very similar to normal speech, there’s always something wrong with it; metaphors are too florid, or show up in inappropriate places, or just aren’t quite the right metaphors. The sound of the language is unnaturally rich, alliterative, poetic (though it doesn’t seem like poetry). The sentences are beautiful to hear, even when they’re describing horrors. All this heightens the “writenness” of the text, its artifice, its nature as story. In addition, Wagnerian or Schoenbergian “leitmotifs” are carefully woven into the text in the form of words that recur in shockingly different contexts (an example is Judy’s use of the noun in “human remains,” a phrase quoted with distaste from a newspaper describing the sudden profusion of corpses in the nearby park after the political shift takes place; Jack later uses the verb form to describe the persistence of comforting beauty when, sitting in that same park, he says, “but so much remains”). These resonances within the text make words, phrases, sentences and lines of argument memorable as they occur and recur in the midst of speeches that can last as long as fifteen or twenty minutes; the ornateness of the writing, rather than distracting us from the content of the play, keeps us from getting lost in the masses of words, and also allow us to take parts of the text away with us, to muse over further and perhaps be frightened by. The way they stand out heightens our consciousness of the “toldness” of the story—we’re not in it, we’re hearing it related, and that’s a political position.

Since the mid-1970’s, Robert Ashley’s work has been almost exclusively concerned with the use of speech as the major component in musical compositions. His operas are elaborate arrangements of talking, with the anecdote as the dominant form of talk. Dust (2000) is an opera for five performers and “electronic orchestra” in which the speakers (Robert and Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert and Joan La Barbara) ostensibly play the roles of five homeless people, living in a park in a large city. During the introductory section of Dust, Robert Ashley announces that they are going to “sing the songs” of a sixth friend, a man in a wheelchair who “lost his legs in some war” and is a hero to the other five because “his irreversibilities are real… he doesn’t have to think of himself as a fuckup.” These “songs” (actually five stories, performed by each of the musicians with a distinct approach to an area Ashley has been cultivating, a set of techniques between speaking and singing) are anecdotes from the man’s past, from before the war. The setup for the opera is quite complex; the opening section introduces the characters, but the rest of the opera contains no reference to them—not even a reminder that we’re listening to “characters” perform. Though the introduction sets out the serious themes of war and homelessness, the “songs” that follow (with the exception of the last one) aren’t about these issues (though they do, I think, take on a powerful resonance in relation to them, and I feel that the opera has a lot more to say about destitution than most narratives I've encountered that try to tackle homelessness directly).

The opera is primarily about storytelling. Ashley announces this early on: “you have to tell a story a lot of times to get it right… the story becomes a kind of friend… to keep away the hurt and the loneliness,” and there are various discussions throughout the opera of practicing ways of talking: learning stories, learning “the dirty words,” trying to stop using others. These statements refer to the content of the stories, to life outside the opera, and to the opera itself. The latter must indeed have taken a lot of practicing; the first four songs are, to the second, the same length. The orchestra part provides chords around which the talking/ singing is to center, and an echo is set up to cause particular pitches in the voice to resonate. This results in particular melodies in the speech, and in particular rhythmic and dynamic emphases, all of which results in a music after which the listener can vividly remember sentences (I’ve been amazed at just how much of the opera’s text I’ve involuntarily committed to memory) and stories, to an extent that just isn’t possible if one goes to hear a lecture, or to see most plays. There’s a also a strange set of similarities between the five singers’ performances, though they approach speech/singing in very different ways; maybe it has to do with the underlying harmonic structures. In any case, it really does sound like five people who have learned the story of one sixth voice, have taken it into themselves as “a kind of friend.” Stories double us, and double the people we’re close to, in whatever way, and the retelling multiplies the whole gang of tellers and stories exponentially.

(to be continued in the next post)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I just finished Barbara Guest's The Countess From Minneapolis (Burning Deck, 1976). I've been meaning to read her stuff for a long time now; it's weird that her death spurred me to finally do it. Countess is an excellent book; the writing is so varied, moving between quasi-narrative prose poetry about what seems like personal experience, much weirder collections of nouns, strange little lyrics, and dialogues. It's clearly some kind of journal of her stay in the title city, and my cultural position as a faithful midwesterner makes the book pretty funny--though my origins are closer to the southern end of the region, I'm definitely from the other pole of the major cultural encounter in the book. The voice is often that of a New Yorker, steeped in European high culture, who's a little freaked out by the midwest; there are a lot of exaggerated Norweigan names, mythic Viking references, and so forth, and four pages after writing about the Mississippi River as being more substantial ("leaving rich traces") than "Alpine water" ("weak because the minerals are lacking"), she comments that "the unappetizing swell of the muddied water could only appeal to the truly desperate."

I have to disagree, but her consciousness of this emerges over the course of one of the book and becomes one of its major trajectories: a recurrence and reframing of familiar and unfamiliar cultures. Clothing, paintings, and other objects from New York City show up in a strange light. Imported architectural styles are noted; "Picasso's heavy easel" has "Las Meninas on it;" there are discussions of the Northern invaders of the Roman Empire. The proper place of something or someone (including names, which are always selected with regard to their "importedness" or their origins in other times) becomes an increasingly questionable notion throughout the book, one reason being that "the Countess" herself is not a reliable stand-in for the authorial "I"; they move toward and away from one another. Here's a nice example of a few of these moves (in a given poem in Countess, more than one is usually being made):

The further exoticism of reading a British novel while visiting Duluth. The Countess
usually "tucked one in her dressing case" when preparing for a visit to one of Theodoric's
relations. The excitement of the Lake precipitated an unconscious association with former
boating parties when she had been younger and, alas, inhabited a narrower world.

"Rather like reading of the River Niger while dining alone in New York," sympathized
her cousin, Glanville.


Already what seemed like the hip east coast discomfort with the midwest has come far from condescension. At the end of the prose piece containing the negative evaluation of the Mississippi, there's a sudden shift: "Old Chinese men with shoulders bent under their thin kimonos passing over bamboo bridges. Mountain paths going ever upward into fog swirls." China comes back a number of times in the book. Here it seems to be contrasted with the midwest and its flatlands and wide, muddy rivers, but by the end of the book the relationship is more complicated. Minneapolis' "Walker Art Museum was formed from the nucleus of the Walker Chinese Collection." There's a strange description of jade model cities, and then a quote from the Ching dynasty in 1784 describing the original of the model, a place where "One cup of wine and one poem were enough to bring out the hidden emotions." It's then observed how easy it is to go upstairs to the roof, "transcending one hundred ninety-two years," to the sculpture garden where a Tony Smith piece is housed. The strangeness of this NYC sculpture in Minneapolis is greater than that of the Chinese model; China, formerly contrasted with Minnesota, is now closer to it than New York. The sculpture is said to be more like an observer than something observed. By the book's conclusion everything is shifting; belonging somewhere is a tentative state that can't depend on time or space for stability. This book gets more interesting the more I try to pin it down, and the focus here on its most coherent, documentary or descriptive sections only scratches the surface. There's a lot going on in this writing.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

One way of categorizing poetry (a way of thinking that's currently useful for me as a writer, and not meant to establish boundaries in a canon) is to split it into two major tendencies: in one, the poem is the vehicle for something (descriptions, thoughts, ideas, arguments, feelings) that's expressed through it; in the other, the poem enacts something. It produces an effect or, if something is expressed, the poem expresses something that couldn't exist except in that configuration of language.

I'm sure that all, or almost all, poetry does both of these things to some extent and, taking this categorization purely theoretically, one could stretch it to say that all writing effects something in addition to the thought "put in" from "behind" it... but that stretched version isn't very useful to me as a practicing writer who'd like to figure out how to write poetry that tends strongly in both these directions at once.

Of writers I like, Bruce Andrews might be a good example of the second category. "Content" is definitely a problematic notion in his work, though motifs of various kinds do accrue over the course of a book. Brecht's poems of the late '20's and early '30's might be an example of the first tendency; they're basically vehicles for the clearest expression of ideas and their problematizations, or of situations and the ethical quandaries they imply, and poetic form and materiality of language are meant to serve that goal of clarity.

I've been thinking about this for a while now, and only recently did I realize that many of my favorite poets could be said to have negotiated these two tendencies successfully. Both Rae Armantrout and Ron Silliman write poetry full of precise description of objects and situations, as well as witticisms, puns, and declarations, and the writing of each has a very powerful and specific effect; I come away from their work with a heightened awareness of my usual ways of isolating and connecting things, as if a model of habitual consciousness has been set out for explicit examination, and thus dehabituation.

Lyn Hejinian's last handful of books, and much of Rosmarie Waldrop's work, are full of philosophy (quotations of Wittgenstein, Deleuze, Nietzsche, Heidegger, James, etc.), and they also enact philosophy--they're thought at work, more than presentations of thought external to the writing. Hejinian's The Fatalist articulates a concept of fate and, by extension, temporality, that's never fully stated. Other recent work articulates philosophies of perception, or of what "beginning" means in its varied manifestations. These philosophies are open, not strictly defined, and aren't the result of the content of the quoted philosophers' work; the latter are more likely to function as compositional material (just like sensory description is material). The theory in these poems is built from examples (for instance, occurrences of kinds of beginning, temporal language having to do with beginnings, "opening sentences," descriptions of beginnings), but the examples have their own life, their own weight--they're examples of the world, stages in thought at work, not pieces of evidence for a pre-constructed philosophy. Reading the work is a process of participating in the thinking as it happens (a quality of the best philosophical writing, but here freed from the urge for argumentative progression that often sabotages the openness of the freest philosophy).

How is this done? I want to spend more time analyzing this work (particularly Hejinian and Waldrop, as I've spent, and continue to spend, a great deal of time thinking about Armantrout and Silliman). Studying the poems in depth will, I hope, bring some of the vaguer ideas stated above to precision. Political and philosophical thinking are both extremely important to me, and I'd like to be able to write poetry that contained explicit statements in both these areas without that explicitness taking away from the less "communication-oriented" effects and enactments produced by formal strategies, juxtaposition, sound and rhetorical energies, and without those tendencies toward witholding coherence of content making the concrete statements seem like mere examples of an abstract template.
Ok. A quick note on Robert Duncan.

I've just finished Bending the Bow for the first time, after starting it maybe eight times in the last ten years. At the enthusiastic encouragement of Arlee Christian I decided to give the guy another whirl, having been annoyed in the past by his obsession with myth, archaic spelling, and classical perfection. It worked this time; what a fantastic book.

I think the key was to take Duncan in large doses. Though the book is only 140 pages, it has all the scope and power of Charles Olson's Maximus, which is something like seven times as long, and Duncan manages to achieve it without the boring parts.

(I have to admit that I kind of like the boring parts of Maximus, as a part of the whole experience of reading it over, say, the course of a year).

Duncan's juxtapositions of overwhelmingly beautiful lines on, say, "the constellations of morning" with stanzas on the brutality of the Vietnam war are not only moving, but also thoughtful; it's not a matter of "think what beauty we could have if this mass murder weren't spoiling things," but of a powerful synthetic statement about humanity. "Humanity" doesn't come off here as an abstract quality, but as a word meant to denote the whole history of this animal's attempts to get beyond the stage in which we felt, or feel, the need to destroy each other to survive.

He's so committed, to language and love and life, all those "l"s in their best senses, that it was impossible, after years of skepticism, not to be won over... it being an essential part of this that his technique is really of the highest quality.

I'd like to embark on a more in-depth analysis of some of the poems in the book, but for the moment I'm just going to absorb the experience of finishing it, lie down, and gape.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Turns out I share a birthday (the 7th) not only with Laura Ingalls Wilder, Dickens, Sinclair and (I think) C.S. Lewis and (ahem) Garth Brooks, but also with Robert Duncan’s mom (see “Passages 23” in Bending the Bow).

Also, I've decided I like Duncan, on my umpteenth attempt at reading him. I think I need to take his stuff in large doses, and not think about how much more I like Spicer, and Blaser, for that matter.

Ok, that’s not such an interesting start to this blog (though an odd little poem inspired by it will, later this evening, appear on my other blog). I’ll be writing a bunch more once I get back to Madison in a few days. San Diego is exhausting; I’ll report on the art I’ve recently seen here in the next post or two.