Thursday, March 30, 2006

Stanislaw Lem died. Shit!
People who have read Borges but haven't read Stanislaw Lem should read Stanislaw Lem. People who haven't read Borges and haven't read Stanislaw Lem should read Stanislaw Lem.
People who have or have not read Stanislaw Lem should read Stanislaw Lem.
Stanislaw Lem should read Stanislaw Lem. But he can't.

I have a funny three-line poem in the upcoming issue of Dirt. It's apparently free;
PR Primeau is a generous editor. Who accepts donations, incidentally. To order, write
to persistencia_press@yahoo.com.

A chapbook of my sequence A Screening (of the first twenty-five refugees as filmed by V. and assistants after the wrong target got hit) has been published by Shoestring Press.

Ok, so Shoestring Press is me, when I have enough money to go to the copy shop--but let's make that our little secret. It's a nice-looking book, though. To order, write to shoestringpress@yahoo.com, or send me six bucks.

I'm happy to have forced myself to stop editing it.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The main reason for the lack of new posts on this blog, my dear handful of readers, is that I'm involved (as actor, co-director, musician, and setter-up of housing) in a production of The Threepenny Opera in a couple of weeks in Chicago. My friend Rick Burkhardt's new translation is politically urgent and hilarious, and the arrangement of Weill's score for a mere three instruments is sounding very good, if I do say so myself. If you're in Chicago, come see it!
Info is here.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The War, Scale, Dialectics, and Poetry

Reading yesterday that “U.S. and allied forces” just bombed part of the so-called Sunni Triangle “on a scale not seen since 2003” has sent my thoughts on a few different courses.

First, of course, I think of the Iraqi civilians who are bound to be killed, or injured, or will have their houses bombed and their villages destroyed, because they live in a region said to be central to the activity of “insurgents.”

Then I think about scale.  That word and its various meanings has interested me for some time now, and will probably come up repeatedly on this blog (a recent post talks a bit about it).  In this case I was surprised by the emotional effect of the switch from “occupation” back to “war” in the framing of the assault on Iraq.  The occupation seemed like something ongoing, and for me to contribute to efforts to get American troops out of Iraq, to help prevent U.S. corporations from taking over its resources, and to encourage opposition to the Bush administration in whatever ways I could, seemed like a series of activities stretched out in time, always necessary but somehow elongated.  The bombings changed the temporal sense of what was happening; it’s characterized again by an urgency, an immediacy of events (even more than immediate—a sense of “too late,” “not again”).

But what can this “immediacy” mean, when I’m so far from Iraq, when these events are taking place on a scale that’s more or less inaccessible to me, even if I can read about it in the news?  The global scale of contemporary life, if one’s paying attention, can be paralyzing; many activists and progressives talk about their sense of helplessness in relation to the horrors happening so far from them.  Though focusing on one’s own self-doubt can’t do much to help the people being killed for the business interest of western elites, it’s still a necessary problem to deal with if you want to continue caring with the energy to try to figure out what you can do, what would help the most, and to do it.  

And what do I do as a poet when confronted with this situation?  I want the art I make to be touched by it.

Seeking the best way to think about these problems brings me back to dialectics.  When I use that term, I’m not thinking about a deterministic pattern with a harmonious result, predictable by the right Hegelian thinker.  Brecht’s least-resolved texts and Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Negative Dialectics probably come closest to the kind of dialectics I find useful and necessary, but it’s even less attached to anything doctrinaire.  Dialectics is not a system or pattern to be imposed on things, and I don’t view it as inherent in the world either; it’s a way of thinking, where thinking is thought of in terms of movement, an activity or practice rather than a collection of thought-possessions.  This activity is characterized by a back-and-forth movement between contradictory systems, positions or frameworks.  It involves the recognition that no thought ever exhausts the thing it’s thought about, that all positions are partial—but it refuses to settle for a nebulous relativism.  The whole point of dialectics is to allow for the establishment of a position without getting stuck in it.  To keep one on one’s toes.  To prevent the extremes of dogmatism and nihilistic despair.  

I co-designed a class for first-year students at The Evergreen State College a few years ago in which we focused on questions of scale in making art.  The final assignment was to create a “ballad” (very loosely defined to include performance art, video and theater as well as poetry and song) about “modern colonialism” (loosely defined to include large-scale urban planning as well as water privatization by the Bechtel corporation), and the question was, “how do you take something immense and put it in a small container without robbing it of its particularity?”  Even a large piece of art—and even a long life—is a small container when confronted with consciousness of global events.  I suggested dialectics as one useful tool.  Take the relation of me, an observer in the midwestern United States, to someone in a significantly different culture in another part of the world.  I want to comprehend the relation between the two cultures in the context of a given political problem.  No matter how fair I attempt to be, no matter how carefully I attempt to see the other culture on its own terms, my very way of defining a “cultural term” and the proper route to avoiding parochialisms is still determined to some extent by my culture.  That partiality has to enter into my thinking and alter its scale.  The attempt has to include the outline of a view I can’t have, one in which it’s precisely my cultural standpoint that’s missing: the point of view of someone in the other culture.  And then it must include consideration of the relationship between these two points of view, the one that belongs to me and is thus partially invisible because it can never be seen from the outside, and the one that’s partially invisible because everything I can see about it is seen from the outside (my inside).  Or, rather, the juxtaposition of the two situations is to be thought about, since to speak of a relation here implies a “whole” whose possibility is denied by these contradictions.  I can then think of the situation of these two one-way, unequal trajectories of consideration as a system… but again that determination of it is conditioned by the partiality of my standpoint; the system looks so different from each of the points of view within it (say, that of someone in a bombed-out city in Iraq and someone about to go sing at an anti-war protest in the aggressor nation) that to call it a system seems false, and the “outside” view of that system is one that can’t be fully achieved except through imagining a second system (say, a different society) in which the specific contradictions of the first don’t exist, or have different meanings.  And so on.

Parataxis finds a place in dialectical thinking of this kind.  Since there is no step-by-step logic that can adequately address the situation, the juxtaposition not just of elements (facts, interpretations) but of entire systems (which include views of a system, languages, categories of what seems significant, cultures, economies, distinct partialities, etc.), and the significances generated by those juxtapositions, can perhaps provide ideas, ways of thinking, points of view and possibilities for practice that could not be reached via other routes.  Simply placing two things next to one another can allow for considerations of the meaning of that placement that might be missed if one starts with  a predetermined notion of the kind of relation one’s seeking.

The danger of a paratactic, non-synthetic dialectics: instead of engaging in a movement that carries me back and forth, with new “back-to’s” and “forth-to’s,” and hopefully a catapulting into something else, being stuck in the middle as the contradictory movement swirls around me. Or getting nowhere because landing always means taking off.

Art seems like a good place to practice this.  I’m hoping to do that in a large poetic project focusing on juxtapositions of different ways of treating differences in scale, from extreme disparity between individual sentences to contrasts between large sections (where one might be highly narrative, or monotonous, or didactic, while the one next to it might be disjointed, or widely varied, or lyrical), between topic areas, between different notions of what scale is (a temporal term, a spatial one, the locus of a bunch of puns, a quality of thought…).  A bit of the draft introduction to this project is on my other blog.  My hope is that it becomes a catalog of ways to attempt a dialectical poetry, one whose form (the way of thinking it embodies and creates) and content are motivated by problems such as those I’ve sketched all-too-abstractly here.

For now, I’m going to prepare for tomorrow’s rally against the occupation of Iraq.  That the questions presented here haven’t been answered is no reason to refrain from contributing to the end of a regime so unfriendly to all but the worst solutions.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I got me a new poem in Moria.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Exciting non-poetic news item:
Michelle Bachelet became Chile's first woman president today. She seems great: socialist, feminist, staunch agnostic (a funny term, but perhaps not so contradictory, given that many political figures in the region have been ousted because of their lack of respect for the church). She's already angering the bastards who supported Pinochet. Big things are happening in South America.
A Diversion: Brecht as Precedent for the "New Sentence"

Ron Silliman's essay, "The New Sentence," begins with the statement, "The sole precedent I can find for the new sentence is Kora in Hell: Improvisations and that one far-fetched." I think I've unearthed another, thanks to a San Diego friend given to translating odd literature by German radicals.

Bertolt Brecht's Refugee Conversations (trans. Charles Senger, unpublished), written in Finland in 1940-41 and probably also in Los Angeles over the next couple of years, is a series of dialogues around different themes between Ziffel, a former scientist, and Kalle, a former laborer. In one section, Ziffel begins reading his memoirs to Kalle in the train station bar where they always meet. The text, excerpted here, is striking in its resemblance to the new sentence. Though the variation in distance between sentences is less formalized, less of a careful method developed over a significant period of the author's life, it's still delightfully (pre-)reminiscent of Silliman's work from the early eighties:

"Vesper bells of Santa Anna. Getting beer. The coachman in the Klauckestrasse has hung himself. Little Marie sat on a stone. Knifing pains in the finger joints, in the elbow, in the chin, in the head, in the shoulder. The knife can also go off course into the ground. He wrote something with chalk on the stable door. The police are informed. Five pfennig pieces. The five pfennig piece was thrown at the house wall. How far it bounces off. He bounced off and left her. The murderers are in the dog house. With chalk, where he got her? Pimples. Short, pointed stakes are driven into the ground, are hewed out by other stakes. [...] Indians, Teutons, Russians, Japanese, knights, Napoleon, Bavarians, Romans. Tutor. You old yokel, you should have known. Dog. Dung-head. Shit-in-the-pants. Little ass. Fop, rotten. Dandy. Ox. Camel. Blockhead. Swine. Milksop. Clodhopper. Sozi. Dummy. Whore. Bastard. Chicken breast. Varicose vein. (Varicose peter). Hump. Begging forbidden. Caution: in the fourth house there lives a police agent. [...] The bad element cribs. By fours. Hands out of pockets, cuckold! The bicycle. Let the gum dry. A box on the ears, not yet. The hour of great contempt in the lending library. [...] Far away in the south. Even on the city wall. At the end boatman and boat. God's people. And have a nice day."

How do you put it all together? Do you simply write whatever comes into your head?

No problem. I arrange it. But with the material. Would you like to hear another page?


"It feels good, but the consequences. The periods. Little Marie sat on Rose Hill and picked blueberries. Cold farmers. [...] Look in my eyes! From behind! Or French. [...] But is there a God? Go in for sports like the others! Either he's good or he's omnipotent. [...] Faust. In every German's satchel. Dying singing. Is Shakespeare English? We Germans are the most cultured people. The German School Teacher won the War of Seventy. Gas-poisoning and mens sana. As a scientist in the mount of venus. Peace to his ashes, he perservered. Bismarck was musically inclined. God is with the righteous, they know not what they do. The stronger batallions help themselves. Artificial honey is more nourishing, since bee honey is too expensive for mass nourishment. Science has discovered. Conquered three antagonistic discoveries. The final victory is the best. Offerings will be received after the performance."

I found it nice how it moves toward the war.

Do you think I should put it into chapters?


It looks too modern. Modern is outdated.

You can't worry about that. Humankind as such is outdated too. Thinking is outdated, life is outdated, eating is outdated. I think you can write what you want because printing is also outdated.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The New Storytelling (concluded)

General characteristics of what I’m calling “The New Storytelling” in theater:

1. Telling is the primary mode of performance.

2. The distinction between showing and telling in theater is dialectically transformed into the showing of telling and telling as a way of showing.

3. The fact that telling is what’s happening becomes a major part of the narrative, content and meaning of the piece; different modes of telling are among the different kinds of content.

4. This situation illuminates the ways in which a given mode of telling partly produces the other content of the play.

5. Examples of “modes of telling:” In The Designated Mourner, Jack and Judy’s distinct interpretative and selective stances toward events; the continuum between the everyday and the highly aestheticized in the language (which makes particular sentences and passages stand out). In Dust, the anecdote; direct reference to storytelling; narrative framing beyond the scope of the body of the piece; the musicality of the speech, including its melodic and rhythmic qualities and its speed (these produce emotional/expressive tenor, make particular phrases memorable, and cement the impression of a single voice being imitated by different speakers in their distinct styles). In The Myopia, varying degrees of absurdity in the form of repetition, mixed dialects, and stylistic quotation (“Beckett,” Stein, colloquial stereotype, high verse drama) alter the comparative importance of narrated content, language as surface, and self-reference; the most “narrational” passages and the most “dialogue-like” ones bring the issue of scale to the fore. In The Climb Up Mount Chimborazo, highly composed speech and simultaneous distinct texts; direct address to the audience, pseudo-dialect verse, announcement of general frames, and quotation vary the degree to which one is invited to draw historical parallels and extrapolate broader arguments (the scale of a given element of content).

6. Overlapping somewhat with #5: There is an emphasis on techniques of performing speech that’s more related to musical models of composition than to theatrical models. This goes beyond “stylized” telling in its demand for great precision in speech performance. Though a mode of performance may function as an “estrangement effect” (at its best, engaging and simultaneously encouraging of critical reflection, a liberating distance rather than an alienating one), it also positively sets up entire systems of relations within the new context it brings to the material presented. A new “layer” is added to the piece, and it both stands out from and intermingles with the “layers” of content and theatrical performance in the usual sense.

7. Scale is a major issue. The frame for the piece takes in much more than can be covered by what’s inside it; or the language within the piece has a larger range of reference than its frame; or the “size” of what’s told is much larger than that of what tells; or the sheer quantity of language “overloads” the play so it becomes a dance of contradictory arguments, alternative theses, possible worlds, societies, and cultural values.

The question of scale is, in a way, what calls for storytelling in the first place in these works. We in the U.S. now face, more than ever, the tensions between our overwhelmingly localized (busy, harried, overdetermined) personal existences and our large-scale global roles and relations with literally and metaphorically far-flung matters (environments, economies, people). What do we do in this situation? Specifically, what do we do as artists? These four composers have tried to tell stories that respond to the threat of a brutal new fascism, our contemporary species of profound loneliness, the long rightward drift in U.S. politics, and the latest attempts in South America at an emergence from centuries of imperialism and destitution. They have invented techniques that allow the stories to cover as much as possible while retaining the sense of imbalance and partiality proper to the global situation. These stories transcend themselves, not symbolically (as in myth), and not via any universalist assumptions, but through new formal and performative strategies and remarkably free approaches to writing. Making the importance of telling internal to the work of art places a crucial question at center stage: how to represent one’s position in the language, as the medium of large- and small-scale history as well as of interpretation and argumentation, so that it might become possible to negotiate the vast systems of relations in which one finds oneself when trying to figure out how to contribute to the end of all unnecessary human suffering. A cure for paralysis. An opening of new possibilities of thinking, and so living.

Monday, March 06, 2006

A rather beautiful website is up for The Nonsense Company, the theater/new music ensemble of which I'm fortunate to be a member.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The "New Storytelling" (part III of IV)

Rick Burkhardt's play The Climb Up Mount Chimborazo (2005)[1] has, I think, the most complex relation to telling of the pieces I've been briefly discussing here. The play is more or less about the relationship between South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar and his teacher, Don Simon Robinson. Robinson (formerly Rodriguez, and Carreno before that) was a fascinating character, employed by Bolivar's family when the latter was a child (and Robinson a teenager), and later appointed by Bolivar as Minister of Education for the free, unified Latin America Bolivar was trying to build. Robinson was widely reviled for his insistence that boys and girls should study in the same classrooms, that Indians should be educated, and that practical skills should be taught. He was also in favor of legalizing divorce, a position which may not seem so radical, but which led to the unseating of countless progressive political figures in South America well into the late twentieth century. Enthusiastic about Rousseau, Robinson was more radical, less bound up in bourgeois culture than Jean-Jacques, whose idealized nature bears so many traces of private property.

The setup:

The play is performed by three actors.
SB: the actor playing Simon Bolivar, also plays Manuela Saenz
DSR: the actor playing Simon Robinson, also plays Alexander von Humboldt
Mosquito: a series of antagonists
The actors vary the extent to which they "inhabit" the roles. For example DSR might choose to represent Simon Robinson by moving a sombrero in rhythm with DSR's voice. In certain segments, such as figure five, the actors give up playing the characters altogether.

In addition to this variability of characterization, the play places an emphasis on ways of speaking, including some that exemplify a new virtuosity in performance of text that Burkhardt has been developing in his chamber works of the last decade:

In the unison passages, none of the actors speaks the entire text; rather, actors choose parts of words and phrases to speak "brokenlyÂ" so that when one hears the composite sound of the two or three actors speaking the line, one hears the entire line moving between them. The effect should be of a text in shards, archaeologically "unearthed."

Sometimes this happens while one of the actors, between his syllabic fragments, is delivering a continous, independent text (in the play's opening scene, the two texts deal with two different periods in South American history, Bolivar's 19th century and our 20th and 21st).

Chimborazo is as much about the way its story (and history in general) is told as it is a telling of that story. Parallels are drawn between the aristocracy's slander of Robinson and Bolivar and the modern bourgeois denunciation of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (concerning his "mental illness" and "deep-rooted sexual fixation on Fidel Castro" (watch the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised to hear these people actually say this stuff), as well as the U.S.' right-wing talk shows (performed here by a group of hand puppets). The play critiques historians' banalization of the relationship between Bolivar and Manuela Saenz--the transformation of a friendship, revolutionary collaboration and nonmonagmous sexual relationship into a love story that spices up the Bolivar story--and connects this to the unreflective employment of "sensuality" in most of today's leftist writing ("Marx with a 'lusty appetite for life'"), broadening its target to include the entire separation of sexuality and friendship, so bound up with heterosexism, that results in a moralistic and repressive standard governing the relationships between compatriots, young people, teachers and students, and more or less everybody, so-called liberals included. Historical and literary quotations abound: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gets repopulated with Latin American revolutionaries, stories of CIA-sponsored torture shove their way in to essays by Alexander Von Humboldt, and a collage of phrases from Louis Zukofsky, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman, filtered through an odd Beowulf-like dialect, compresses the tale of the Bolivarian military campaigns into a manic five-minute lecture. Throughout the play, the resistance to colonial, corporate, heteronormative, racial, religious and literary oppression is trying to make its story heard through the noise of the media, of recorded history, and of the incessant reinforcement of the laws of love, sometimes gently and sometimes in a barrage of confused or hysterical speech. Accompanying all this is a beautiful prerecorded tape, largely composed of noises made on a turntable and then meticulously edited--a literalization of the idea of "record:" the historical archive, but also a technology that, like the Bolivarian dream, has not quite been given up. There's something crucially tender about the entire project that can't be found in many places in contemporary art, a mournful quality that's very much intermingled with a sense of what can be accomplished. This is memory in the best sense; it includes the present as something to be remembered as if from a better future. The revolution of Bolivar, Robinson and Saenz was an attempt to break open more varieties of liberation than we usually conceive of today, and Burkhardt's play preserves this project and expands on it in a way we desperately need, aesthetically and ethically.

(to be concluded--really--in the next handful of days)
[1] A PDF of the full script should be up shortly at the Nonsense Company's website.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

the "New Storytelling" (part 2)

Beautifully sculpted incessant speech, full of sentences that overlap on hinge words with double grammatical functions, of repeatedly revised clauses and dialogues rehearsed by a single performer, nearly always makes its appearance at some point in any given play of David Greenspan. In the midst of incredibly strange, hilarious, intelligent plays, these balloons of language appear, knocking the whole form of the piece out of balance and giving it the opportunity to go in all sorts of new directions. In The Myopia (1998, click here for a PDF of the script), the massive monologue becomes the frame for the entire play. So far it’s only been performed by Greenspan himself, sitting in a chair, doing the voices of all the characters and narrating the stage directions.

It’s hard to imagine performing it in any other way. The “plot” of this “tragic burlesque of epic proportions” concerns Barclay (a softly glowing globe on a stand who speaks in Beckett-esque monologues of existential nihility), the offspring of Koreen (a giant) and Febus, a playwright whose great unfinished project was a musical about the life of Warren G. Harding, the corrupt Republican president who, in a way, set the American political right on the path we’re so familiar with today. Barclay’s speeches (in which he debates whether to complete the musical) alternate with scenes from the collapsing marriage of Koreen and Febus and from the life of Harding, which culminates in the 1920 Republican national convention, where hordes of politicians and journalists emerge from the impenetrable smoke of cigars and argue through the cascading waves of choral coughing. The narrator (the “raconteur” or “orator,” who has “become stage directions”) and his doppleganger (who “bears a striking resemblance to the actress Carol Channing”) appear to tell us that an entire three-hour act has been cut from the play, and engage in a discussion of the theater, of Gertrude Stein’s playwriting theories, and of experiences with acting exercises. There are moments of quasi-Shakespearean verse, L.A.-showbiz-slimeball talk, and that feedback loop of revision that sounds like Stein as Woody Allen, with more urgency than either.

What’s most striking about The Myopia is its scale, and scale is explicitly and implicitly thematized throughout (Koreen’s giantism, the three-hour cut act). The fact that a single performer simply delivers the script (given that it is meant to be performed live) allows for a capaciousness that exceeds anything an actual staging could achieve. The drastically different “looks” and tones of the various scenes alone would be more than most theater ensembles and budgets could handle. The history the play describes exceeds even its own possibility, both “horizontally” (in time) and “vertically” (in terms of how much of a given time can be represented). My favorite example of both dimensions is the following set of stage directions:

Characters of HARDING’s life now populate the stage: senators, congressmen, cronies, and crooks.
World War I enters, commences, and concludes. Soldiers return from Europe, litter the stage, impoverished and out of work. Postwar chaos ensues: all over the stage there are race riots, crime
waves, and a rise of fundamentalism. Down left, the Democratic Party is paralyzed by the social
upheaval. Up right, the Republican Party capitalizes on the nation’s discontent, begins its ascendancy.

The form of The Myopia is unique in my experience; its interior is a play, or a set of potential plays, some of them commentaries on the others (and a note at the end of an earlier Greenspan play claims that his next work is, in fact, a musical about Harding, implying that the entirety of The Myopia is a kind of absurdly inflated commentary on the failure of that project), and the constant reference to the stage reminds us of the scale of all the things that would be happening on it—the institution of the theater is an essential frame here—and what makes it possible to present this kind of theater at all is the fact that it’s a told story, a huge thing in the tiny container of a performer’s body and speech. Greenspan’s writing always seems based on some insoluble problem with the seed of the play, its original main idea; what ends up as the play is a multiplication and series of variations (almost puns) on that problem. In this one, the friction between different scales is at its most extreme, directly enacted in language.

(to be concluded soon)
Parts of my sequence, "Regress," are up at Unlikely Stories.