Friday, September 29, 2006

Apropos of absence of personality: I want to start with these lines from
"In a Shadow Gate"
by Paul Hoover

Because it has rained and the TV
in on, the world is not itself.
No setting, no plot, no stable
sense of others, yet the vaguest
scent of events absorbs or rather
emits the earthly smell of light.

The woman writes, as if in space:
The boy shines in the house.
The meaning of the sentence

arrives like a shroud or a mouth.
North of her eyes, desirable objects
occupy a blank page of heaven.


I don’t believe that Palmer means, as some LP might, that “personality” can be obliterated in the poem per se. I think he might agree that ALL poems: confessional, language, abstract, or otherwise are somewhat grounded in personality simply because a human wrote them. Even Stein’s work has her signature all over it. Therefore, “personality” is never completely erased. Rather, Palmer is “interested in an attempt to return to the physicality of the WORD AS GESTURE, as an embodiment of the VARIETY of selves and non-selves which propose themselves as language on the page.” Meaning that poetry is not a condensation of other forms (i.e. prose). Or as Bernstein puts it, “That is, in prose you start with the world/ And you find the words to match: in poetry you start with the words and find the world in them.”

More about word as gesture in a moment. First, two poems.

Dearest Reader by Michael Palmer

He painted the mountain over and over again
from his place in the cave, agape
at the light, its absence, the mantled
skull with blue-tinted hollows, wren-
like bird plucking berries from the fire
her hair alight and so on
lemon grass in cafe in clear glass.
Dearest reader there were trees
formed of wire, broad entryways
beneath balconies beneath spires
youthful head come to rest in meadow
beside bend in gravel road, still
body of milky liquid
her hair alight and so on
successive halls, flowered carpets and doors
or the photograph of nothing but pigeons
and grackles by the shadow of a fountain.


Grandmother in the Garden
Louise Gluck

Grandmother in the Garden
Louise Gluck

The grass below the willow
Of my daughter's wash is curled
With earthworms, and the world
Is measured into row on row
Of unspiced houses, painted to seem real.
The drugged Long Island summer sun drains
Pattern from those empty sleeves, beyond my grandson
Squealing in his pen. I have survived my life.
The yellow daylight lines the oak leaf
And the wire vines melt with the unchanged changes
Of the baby. My children have their husbands' hands.
My husband's framed, propped bald as a baby on their pianos,
My tremendous man. I close my eyes. And all the clothes
I have thrown out come back to me, the hollows
Of my daughters' slips...they drift; I see the sheer
Summer cottons drift, equivalent to air.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

So-Called Language Poetry and Beyond

I have been very interested for many years about how the so-called Language Poetry movement has formed and re-formed poetry in the last 15-20 years. Recently, while searching for places to submit, I came upon a magazine which (although eact wording alludes me) claimed that they are completely uninterested in even considering any work with narrative. Okay. But, is this quite what Silliman, Palmer, Berstein, Andrews, Watten, Heijinian and some others had in mind?

I have decided - just for fun! - to post installments of a paper I gave to a heavily-narrative based school on a sort of history of "Language Poetry."

The first installment later today - or tommorrow.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Madrid, Beauty, and Women Poets

If you follow the news, you’ve probably heard the rumblings in the fashion world.

From today’s New York Times: “Organizers of Madrid’s Fashion Week caught designer and fashionista scorn for banning the unreasonably thin from their show. The Madrid standard: a minimum body mass index of at least 18 — a measure of body fat based on weight and height. A reading of 18 is still underweight (18.5 to just under 25 is considered normal), but it is outsized among the ranks of supermodels, many of whom hover between 14 and 16.” I congratulate Madrid’s bravery in putting a crunch on a industry the encourages women/girls to starve themselves and society to judge people by their looks. To change this engrained way of thinking would deeply damage the U.S. economy. Think of how many hair salons, make-up giants, gyms, diet book writers, and plastic surgeons would be out of business.

What on earth does this have to do with the poetry world? I would argue, not exclusively but somewhat, as un-feminist as it sounds, that better looking women have more of a chance of becoming successful poets. Perhaps this started in the fifties with the fashion-model duo of Sylvia and Anne. A poet having their photograph on their book is a relatively new practice. It started (more or less) with Carolyn Forche’ in 1982 with The Country Between Us. Forche’ (who is a GREAT poet and quite a looker, by the way) not only had the dreamy, long-haired beautiful poet portrait on her book – but it was the cover! This paved the way for APR’s and publishers' habit of including a photo with poems. There is nothing wrong with this, but I do think it skews the playing field a little (see: Rukeyser and Niedecker).

I’m not against feminine wiles as a concept. If I were, I’d be paying my car mechanic a lot more. However, I think we could all stand to have a little more Pynchon in the poetry world. Shouldn’t poetry be based on, well, poetry.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Visual Art and Poetry

I can’t remember not being interested in visual art.

From the time I was a small child, I wrote. I made up stories and plays and typed them on my great-grandmother’s 1910 typewriter. This was largely born out of a childhood with absolutely NOTHING to do. We lived in boring towns, and my parents, who had five kids and little money, pretty much left entertainment up to us. Despite the writing, I always remember being interested in painting. (Interestingly, it never even crossed my mind to be a painter). My interest grew when I went to the University of New Mexico and started a series of grueling art history classes in which we had to memorize the names of paintings, artists, stories, and so on. What might be mind numbing for some was my definition of bliss. And I thought I was fabulous to have all this information in my head. Still, at the ripe age of 18, I had never really seen a “real” painting (or other) other than O’Keefe. This helped prompt my first trip to New York, my four year career at the MFA, Boston, and eventually, my permanent move to New York.

Art has informed my poetry in the most pronounced way. I write about paintings, film, and photographs often -- my forthcoming book is called Derivative of the Moving Image. I write in museums. Curiously, as I have anxiety and depression and am often mentally uncomfortable, museums calm me down and can often bring me to a state of bliss. Despite all the bad politics, I thing my job at the MFA was the only “right” job I ever had (and there have been plenty!).

I know I’m a LITTLE unusual, but not solitary in this equation. Ashbery was an art critic. O’Hara spend years working at MOMA (if memory serves right – he started as a guard and became a curator. Berstein is married to a wonderful artist - Susan Bee. Clemente worked with Ginsberg and Creeley. Jorie Graham slips painting into her art on a regular basis and was trained in film.

Some of my favorite painters are Warhol, Basquiat, Charlotte Solomon, Cy Twombly, Lucien Freud, Kiki Smith, Rothko, Pollock, Milton Avery, and Clemete.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


We are proud to welcome you a fourth issue of Saint Elizabeth Street. This has been a long time in coming. (Two or three years!) Unfortunately, life often gets in the way of poetry. And art in all forms comes very, very slow. We apologize in advance for any typos, miscommunications, offensive, and confusing text, or unanswered letters. Enjoy!

Jennifer Bartlett, Editor
Jim Stewart, Designer
Jeffrey, Muffin, Lucy, Copy Editors

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Disabled

I have written many letters to the Times regarding their use of the term “the disabled” which is one of my pet-peeves. These letters have come to no avail. Last night, while speaking to my husband Jim, I realized why this terminology gets to me. As with “The Blacks,” “The gays,” or “The Jews,” this terminology takes a group of people and lumps them all together for convenience (or laziness) sake based on one quality. This is very dehumanizing and inaccurate.

Let’s pick on “the gays” for a moment. One on end, you’ve got the guys on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. On the other end, there’s my dear friend who loves ice hockey, has never decorated anything, and dresses like a homeless Vassar student. What do these men have in common? Precious little!

When it comes to “the disabled” the terminology gets even more bizarre and diluted. When one writes “the disabled” what does he/she mean? Do they mean CP, MS, deafness, depression, autism, blindness or paralysis? I would even argue that HIV, epilepsy, cancer, and being a Republican are disabilities. Why not be specific? If someone is referring to a problem with a lack of curb-cuts, why not call those affected “people who use wheelchairs.” I mean I’m disabled and I never use a curb-cut and I doubt people with autism have trouble with them either.

That said, ironically, I am adamantly against the politically correct movement. I view such as some people making up words such as “differently abled” that they don’t really buy into just to make themselves feel better or superior. But, I do think that writers (especially those in the Times!) have a responsibility to examine the language in detail and, most important, to say what they mean.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

100 poems/poetry books to be read immediately contined

15. Like the Wind Loves a Window Andrea Baker
16. "What the Living Do" Marie Howe
17. The Grand Permission ed. Brenda Hillman
18. Talking Poetry ed. Lee Bartlett
19. "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight Galway Kinnell
20. "Impressionism" Jorie Graham (Harvard Review #27)
21. Code of Silences ed. Michael Palmer
22. Letters to a Young Poet Rilke
23. "Wild Geese" Mary Oliver
24. The Greenhouse Effect Lee Bartlett
25. Cascadia Brenda Hillman
26. Selected Poems Barbra Guest
27. Ariel Sylvia Plath
28. readiness enough depends on Larry Eigner
29. The Book of Tendons Eleni Sikelianos
30. The Biography of Anne Sexton (forgot author)
31. View with a Grain of Sand Wislawa Szymorska

Monday, September 11, 2006

September 9, 2001, A Letter to my other Jim

When a really bad thing happens the amazing thing to me is not only how terrible the thing is itself, but how unexpected. This is the feeling I remember most as I go through my own personal tragedies: the deaths of my young boyfriend (Ashley), sister (Emma), and stepmother (Saint Elizabeth). More recently, on a much more mundane level, my son’s first real injury: a cut on a can, lots of blood, a trip to NYU ER and four stitches. What I remember about all these events is how vividly ordinary the moments before the news was and how I keep replaying these moments to see if I could stop or change the event. I have a real sense of what the world felt like before and after.

This is the exact feeling I have about September 11, 2001. It is for this reason that I want to write about the day or so before the tragedy, rather than the day itself. September 9, 2001 was one such day – that was both magical and ordinary. In the morning I met my good friend, the artist Jim Campbell, to do a video shoot on the beach in Montauk. We met near Grand Central Station and took the bus out onto Long Island. During the nearly three-hour ride we drank coffee and talked about sex, marriage, and art. His wife picked us up at the bus stop and we drove through the estates of the Hamptons the wealthy friend’s house where she was staying. I remember being most interested in the swimming pool – keeping with my own bizarre obsession. Then, Jim and I went to the beach. Jim’s idea turned out to be grueling for me. As I have cerebral palsy, Jim’s idea was to catch my movement on video, later to be transformed into LTD lights in a sort of oblique portrait. What he required of me was to run in the sand in a circle completely clothed in black and black socks – no shoes. It was difficult, hot, and exciting. I think I slept on the way home.

The next (was it Tuesday?) I arrived at Intermediate School 49 in East Williamsburg to help set up our school. It was my second week officially (of five difficult years) with the DOE, but with no students yet. What I keep relentlessly remembering is how perfectly blue the sky was that day – just like today. It’s this impossible clear blue that I’ve actually only noticed in New York City.

Jim, who lives in the Bay Area, would later tell me of Sept. 11th that he was glad to have been in NY when "the accident" occured. As a someone who is very attached to her hometown, I knew what he meant. To be far away and in an endless state of wondering what REALLY happened would have been infinetly worse. Five years later, both Jim and I have a child (with separate spouses!). I have fled the Department of Education. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the Ambigous Icon – after MOMA deemed it too un-politically correct. Jim makes art. I write. We go on.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Our Man Michael Palmer!

Finally, there seems to be justice in the ever-wacky poetry world. Michael Palmer has just been awarded the Wallace Stevens Award by the Academy of American Poets. The prize has been in existence since 1994 and carries a purse of $100,000. This news makes me ecstatic for two reasons.

In short, Palmer is my favor living poet. In a review of his work for the Harvard Review I called him “one of America’s most important poets….startingly lyrical and visceral.” New Directions has since used this quote in blurbs for Palmer’s subsequent books. To describe his work as thus is quite exact and the thing that makes Palmer so magically talented. His work defies borders. It tells a story, but is not narrative. It is maniacally lyrical and beautiful, but relentlessly experimental. He is considered a forerunner of “so-called Language Poetry,” but he himself dismisses this title. His work is much different from Bernstein, Andrews, Rae Armantrout, and somehow similar too. The work laughs in the face of categories to which many poets desperately cling.

The Academy of American Poets and the mainstream public have their opinion of what is and isn’t “good poetry” as much as young poets and editors. This is to the extent that the “mainstream” reads poetry – which everyone reading this will know is a joke! I had a disagreement some months ago with some poets as to whether Palmer is marginalized or underrated. All disagreed with me. However, what I meant was that Palmer in marginalized in terms of what Americans regard as major poets. One only has to look at the Award’s past recipients to see what I mean: Gerald Stern, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, James Tate, and so on. These are largely narrative accessible poets. The exceptions were Ashbery (you have to give him an award for something!) and Jackson Mac Low (another liberal leap for the Academy whose judges that year included Creeley, Perloff, and Yau). These are all fine poets. My point is that readers are not exactly going to see a Palmer poem on the bus next to Angelou and Bishop.

Perhaps this award will help expand all of our opinions of what can be great poetry can and should be. If not, oh well! Mr. Palmer, you’ve got the money and you surely deserve it! Enjoy!

Thursday, September 07, 2006


For my husband’s birthday we went to see Factotum, the film based on the novel by Charles Bukowski. I have very limited knowledge of Bukowski’s work. What I have read, I haven’t been much impressed with. The film made me want to give his work – at least this novel – more of a chance.

While I was watching the film, I really hated it, despite the fact that three of my favorite actors were in it and the acting was fabulous. What I had trouble stomaching was Dillon and Taylor’s total disregard for civility and the film’s glamorization it. What I mean to say is that there is nothing cool about waking up, vomiting, and reaching for another drink. I think films/books about alcoholics touch a nerve in many poets/artists who drink. One always walks away wondering: Am I this bad? Will I become this bad? And one is left with a sense of paranoia.

As time passes however, I find that I truly loved the film. I think Bukwoski had a wonderful, relentless attitute toward writing that is unbelievably inspiring. In the final scene, Henry (the writer) is sitting alone with a drink in a strip bar. He gives this wonderful monolugue about how if you are going to do "it" (it meaning writing, hopefully, not drinking!) you have to go all the way. He says something to the effect that you may lose lovers, wives, your family, all your money, and if you go on long enough, you will lose your mind. But, once you get there, nothing could be better. I think these are the words of a true writer. Someone who writes not for the small doses of money or popularity it brings, but because they have no choice. Ironically, Bukoski wasn’t THAT good of a writer. Rather, he was a fastitous self-promoter. But, he had the most important thing an artist can have: blind faith.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A week ago, the New York Times Book Review gave a winning review of the new Francine Prose book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them . I thumbed through the book quickly in the local bookstore. I am a big fan of lists and in the back of the book Prose gives a “list of books to be read immediately.” As I am on a sabbatical of sorts from teaching, I have been reading “the classics” so I wanted to steal some things off the list. I actually found it to be very disappointing. Much of what Prose mentions (Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Bronte, Austen, Tolstoy) is so obvious to any person whose been to college. And of course, I don’t remember any poets on the list.

So I’ve decided to make a running list of ‘100 Poems, Poets, and Poetry books That Must Be Read Immediately.”

1. “Life at War” Denise Levertov
2. “Howl” Allen Ginsberg
3. “Kaddish” Allen Ginsberg
4. “Talking to the Sun on Fire Island” Frank O’Hara
5. “A Story About the Bees” Robert Hass
6. “Twenty-First Monday Night” Anna Ahkmatova
7. My Life Lynn Heiginian
8. Dream of the Unified Field Jorie Graham
9. “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”
10. The Heat Bird Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
11. Random Possession Mei-Berssenbrugge
12. The Collected Lorine Neidecker
13. The Collected Muriel Rukeyer
14. Visions of Gerard Jack Kerouac

To be continued…