Radical Doubt – a poetry reading

Join me, along with Andrew Joron, Amy Narneloop, and Eric Parkison, next Saturday afternoon in San Francisco for a poetry reading. The reading is part of the sixth annual conference of the North American Anarchist Studies Network.

Radical Doubt: a poetry reading
This reading by San Francisco Bay Area poets begins with the belief that oppressive behaviors and epistemological certainty go hand in hand. We admire the comfort that poetry finds in uncertainty, in the liminal spaces between convention and challenge.

The reading is from 1:30-3:00pm on Saturday, March 21. It will take place at the California Institute for Integral Studies, on the 3rd Floor, Room 4. CIIS is at 1453 Mission St in San Francisco.

Click for the full NAASN conference program.
Or here for the Facebook Events page.

Water, the problem of representation

An experiment in micrograms, dedicated to the tule fog and shrouded winters.

Lyrical Materialism, a working theory

In June, I published four poems along with a statement of poetic research in the dynamic journal Common-Place. The statement gave me the opportunity to work through some of my thinking about the how and why of what I am writing. I’m reprinting it here since the Common-Place website makes it hard to find past issues of their poetic research section.

Poetic Research Department


The poems published here take a lyrical materialist approach. They are part of a series on which I am at work called Palimpsests.

Lyrical materialism is my term for an aesthetic approach that takes beauty as its object of concern and finds it in the world as it is. As a post-modern poetic, it is engaged with the problems of indeterminacy in language. It asserts that nothing more than the material reality of the world is required for beauty to exist, which is to claim that aesthetic is a value over and above self-interest.These four lyrical materialist poems depend for their cultural depth on informed awareness of historical context.

Palimpsests explores the theme of presence and absence with respect to a sense of place through the aesthetics of functional (even if lingering) industrial spaces. These poems embody the sounds and rhythms of factories, industrial farmlands, and ports. Whether rural or urban, the places of these poems have survived the shift to a post-industrial economy and merit deep attention for the role they play in constructing the materiality and aesthetic of our daily experiences. Sacramento, California’s port; Columbia, South Carolina’s last grist mill; Iowa’s industrial cornfields; and Black Mountain College’s repurposed campus all share a history of transformation.

“At this Point, a Confluence” is based on research into the efforts beginning in 1860 to dredge the flood-prone Sacramento River and raise the streets of California’s fledgling capital city. The emerging railroad businesses invested heavily, since Sacramento was the western terminus of the first transcontinental line. Buildings, streets, and sidewalks were literally raised on jacks to create a new, floating street level, high above the flood line. The first loading docks and walkways were built from the wood and boilers of disassembled steamships that had carried miners and supplies to the city’s river banks. In addition to traditional archival research, I used digital tools to align and merge historical maps with contemporary satellite imagery in various layers of transparency. The resulting digital palimpsest allowed me to see how the path of the American River and the patterns of city development have changed since the 1860s. The poem’s concluding notion, that the transcontinental railroad “obliterated time and space,” is taken from historian Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2012).

1. “Steamer Landing, and Pacific Railroad Depot. Sacramento City, ” photographic print, published by Lawrence & Houseworth (1866). Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Click on image to enlarge in a new window.

Dutch immigrant B.R. Crooner founded the Adluh grist mill in Columbia, S.C., around 1900. The Allen Brothers Milling Company continues to operate the mill alongside boutique hotels in the heart of a revitalized former industrial district. The origins of the name Adluh are a mystery, yet the enigmatic word—lit in blinking neon red capital letters atop the tall building—has been a beacon for generations of residents of South Carolina’s capital city. As Carl Sandburg put it in “Skyscraper,” which was first published in Chicago Poems, “Spelled in electric fire on the roof are words telling miles of houses and people where to buy a thing for money. The sign speaks till midnight.” One local legend holds that Adluh is the mirrored spelling of the founder’s daughter’s name, Hulda. However, census records do not bear this out.

“Succession in Iowa” paratactically sets technology at odds with what is missing from the landscape: the herds of buffalo that once roamed the great plains and were hunted nearly to extinction. The poem’s final predicate, which links changes in technology with changes in the biotic community, illustrates a normative element of lyrical materialism. Images like those from the first half of the nineteenth century showing herds of buffalo that extend beyond the horizon contrast sharply with the “Sketches in the far West” from Harpers Weekly in 1874, showing men curing buffalo hides and bones at a trader’s store. The piles of bones in the background typify the scale of the killings.

2. “On the Prairie,” Robert Hinshelwood, engraver, after W. H. Beard (image and text 26 x 32 cm., on sheet 46 x 58 c.), William Pate & Co. (New York, 1869?). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. Click on image to enlarge in a new window.

3. “Sketches in the Far West-Curing Hides and Bones,” wood engraving, Frenzeny & Tavernier. Illustration in Harper’s Weekly (April 4, 1874 suppl., p. 307). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Click on image to enlarge in a new window.

The final poem, “Palimpsest,” is perhaps the most difficult and layered of the four, because the form of the poem is structured around the changing layers of information in a map that persists through time. A palimpsest is a document on which writing or drawing has been erased to make room for later writing and on which traces of the previous draft remain visible. Palimpsests are common not only in times when writing materials are scarce but also in times of exploration, when boundaries are contentious. A palimpsest, then, is the metaphor that I employ in this poem for the shifting boundaries driving the avant garde.

The Black Mountain College, the radical campus experiment outside Asheville, N.C., operated between 1933 and 1957 in two locations. After the college closed, both campuses converted to other uses. During its brief existence, BMC included among its faculty some of the most pioneering visual, literary, and sound artists of the mid-20th century. Josef Albers, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Willem de Kooning, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller all held teaching positions at one of BMC’s two campuses. The poem opens with an image of wild turkeys that continue to use daily the paths which they have used since a time before human encroachment and despite the development (and therefore changed map) that has grown up around them. “Palimpsest” closes by exploring the limits of what information maps convey, how maps themselves are historical documents the moment at which they are produced, and the inability of maps to account for changes over time.

listen to Black Mountain poets

BMC_PoetsThanks to Alice Sebrell for the opportunity to gather together a handful of the web’s best collections of recordings of Black Mountain poets. It is an honor to contribute to the good work that the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center does to preserve the history and legacy of the Black Mountain College. Visit their website to find recordings of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and others.

If you know of collections that I missed, let me know.

Don’t choose on me

Apparently the criteria for selecting a poet laureate in North Carolina have changed.

The North Carolina Arts Council’s traditional criteria, which are no longer on their website, are below.

  • A North Carolinian with deep connections to the cultural life of this state
  • Literary excellence of the writer’s work
  • Influence on other writers
  • An appreciation of literature in its diversity throughout the state.
  • Statewide, national or international reputation
  • Ability and willingness to conduct the public engagement duties of the office

But Pat McCrory, Governor of NC, recently appointed someone who arguably does not meet these criteria, and he did so without consulting any of the literary or arts institutions of the state. A North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources spokesperson explained to the News and Observer that the criteria above “are not a requirement. (Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz)’s position is that the poet laureate is appointed by the Governor and it is his prerogative on whom to choose.”

Ed Southern, Executive Director of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, explains why it matters that the Governor ignored input from the people of the state, ignored the traditional criteria for the office, and ignored the general principle that appointments of this nature should be made in a transparent and open way. Since McCrory has offered no reason why he appointed Valerie Macon, then he may just as well have had no criteria at all. By selecting a poet laureate in this opaque way, the Governor diminishes the respectability of the office and hinders the new office holder from accomplishing the work with which she is charged.

Rob Schofield of NC Policy Watch likens the Governor’s actions to

those of a distracted, partially-engaged college boy rather than a committed politician with any kind of coherent ideology or agenda. Seen in this light, the fact that McCrory opted to select an anonymous state employee who has self-published some poetry as a kind of hobby as North Carolina’s poet laureate makes more sense. By selecting such a person the Guv has opted for someone like himself — a person who doesn’t fully comprehend his job or the fact that he doesn’t comprehend it.

Even for North Carolina, BBQ pork capital of the world, this is an awfully hamfisted way of generating a public discussion of poetry.

Fourteen Hills, 20.2 – new poetry published

2014-05-27 14.41.31

A few years ago, I began to feel like the more contemporary poetry I read, the more I saw a pattern of predictability in poets of my generation. The poems each had very different things to say, but they said their bit in oddly similar ways. Best I could articulate, I felt like each poet’s goal was to one-up other poets with the most surprising metaphors or the most personal revelations.

And then I read Marjorie Perloff’s “Poetry on the Brink.” I’m not the only one who feels this way. Perloff describes a trend toward “a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity.” She goes on to articulate what I couldn’t – the formula that so many of these poems follow:

1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”;
2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”);
3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.

I know that I am guilty of thinking about late capitalism in relation to my poems, but that’s just another way of saying that my poems are contemporary. Continuing the theme of poems from industrial landscapes, my latest publication, “Woodland Grain Terminal,” fits in with other outward looking poems in the latest issue of Fourteen Hills. Fourteen Hills has a reputation for publishing experimental poetry and other work that is difficult to categorize. It’s no surprise, then, that this issue has plenty of poems that defy the popular present-stimulus/memory/epiphany formula that Perloff thinks is deadening the lyric.

After a night of powerful readings at the release party in a converted historic fire station, I have enjoyed reading through the issue.  Particularly good are Dan Alter’s labor poems and GC Waldrep’s “Testament.” The short story “Second Coming,” by Bryan Furuness, looks at future humanity in a storytelling style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

As soon as the current issue page says 20.2 and you see the cover art from Joshua Dudley Greer’s Point Pleasant collection, then you can order a copy online. Or, there are several local bookstores that carry Fourteen Hills.

Durham friends, you can find Fourteen Hills at The Regulator on Ninth Street. In Atlanta, A Cappella Books (208 Haralson Ave. NE) carries copies. In DC, Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave NW) will have issue 20.2 very soon. Too many NYC locations to list; email if you want help finding a copy.

Issue 20.2

Lyrical materialist poems, Common-Place Issue 21

Over at Common-Place, four of my poems have been published along with a statement of poetics and research in their latest issue (Vol. 14, No. 3.5). Common-Place is an online journal of the American Antiquarian Society. As the magazine describes itself: “a bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks–and listens–to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history.”

You can find the poems here.

I’m no historian, and even I find their articles interesting. In a recent issue, my friend Ari Kelman has a piece on the curious story of the Sand Creek massacre’s contested memory. You can read the article for a preview of his superb book on the same topic, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, which just won a fucking Bancroft, that’s how good it is.

They also have a cool issue on Early Cities of the Americas. Standouts are Carl Smith’s profile of end-of-the-19th-century Chicago and Inga Clendinnen’s portrait of 16th century Tenochtitlan, the imperial city of the Aztecs. Smith focuses on trains and the way the railroad helped the young, recently reborn, city of Chicago come to engender American progress. Clendinnen brings to life the shock that Spanish explorers must have felt when their eyes first fell upon a city larger and more advanced than any European city they had known.

But besides all those articles on historical topics, Common-Place has room for poetry. Their Poetic Research section is a space for poems based on historical research along with statements of poetics. Previous editions of Poetic Research include poems by Cole Swensen, Brian Teare, and many others.

I am grateful to Robert Strong, editor of the Poetic Research collection, and Trudy Powers, Administrative Editor at Common-Place, for their months of work to prepare this issue.


Adluh Flour

Time-lapse of Northern California train route

Time-lapse video of part of Amtrak California’s Capitol Corridor route, from Davis to Richmond, CA. The train makes stops in Suisun/Fairfield and Martinez. The camera is facing northwest for most of the trip, with farm fields of the great Central Valley, the coastal range, rice fields of the Sacramento River delta, the Carquinez Strait, and San Pablo Bay. Along the way are tomato processing plants, oil and gas refineries, the C&H Sugar plant, and hundreds of oil tankers on parallel tracks. Shrouded in clouds, Mt. Tamalpais and Marin County are visible across the water near the end of the video.

San Francisco readings

I want to thank the organizers of two great literary readings this weekend.

Thanks to the staff of Fourteen Hills for putting on Gird your ‘Loin at Celtic Coffee on Saturday. See photos from the event here.

And thanks to Gray Tolhurst for the invitation to read at The Convent on Friday night.