Thursday, April 11, 2019

Greg Ashley's Anecdotes

In a society in which feeling too much is a crime, Greg Ashley’s Anecdotes is not just another musician’s tell all, coming to terms with the addictions to alcohol and drugs, but it’s often driven by a deeply felt sympathy and empathy for the suffering of others with insights into America’s disease at least as profound as any sociologist, with a heavy dose of gallow’s humor. Although the narrator is disarmingly frank about how his addictions have lead him over and over again to fuck up, Ashley is also a precise observer and listener, with as keen of an ear for the nuances of the music of others’ stories & confessions as he as to other musicians’ in the studio or on stage. 

In contrast to many books by people known first and foremost as a musician, you’re not going to get a lot of insights into Ashley’s musical craft as song writer/producer, no epiphanic childhood discovery that music was his calling, or some abstract sense of one’s loyalty to one’s audience or fan base or whatever. No career complaints about being mismanaged, or bitterness about the imitators, sycophants, and “fans” who want him to sound like he used to. There are no cloying confessions, or special pleading. The book is not a self-advertisement.…and if there’s bragging in this book, it’s usually for a “We” (whether Gris Gris, or the French band he worked with in 2017 & 2018).

Though arranged loosely chronologically, Anecdotes eschews the overarching meta-narrative of the memoir for 24 self-contained chapters. Greg has a knack for weaving tales (far better than I am capable of), with the warm tone of a sarcastic shit-talker, who is ultimately more of a lover than a fighter. Even if Ashley’s mouth may get him in trouble, this narrator is able to step outside the barroom brawls that often form in the testosterone driven music scene to appreciate their story-worthy absurdity with the same wry eye of detachment that he brings to watching his past self score crack from a prostitute, and visiting an Elvis museum (not because he’s especially interested in Elvis, but because the man who runs it is a fascinating character).

The poignant portraits of the friends who died tragically young made me cry without falling into the idealizations so easy to succumb to when speaking about the dead, and any policy maker seriously interested in getting to the bottom of why our mental health system, and rehab detox centers, or AA do not work for so many, and consider possible alternatives can learn much from his scathing and witty accounts of being in Rehab & Detox. His portraits of the New Bridge Foundation sound like it could be from Boots Riley’s “Sorry To Bother You” or other dystopian futurism. The dystopia’s already here, and just because you’re sick and you know it doesn’t mean you aren’t able to help heal others. It’s punk at its non-dogmatic best.

Monday, April 1, 2019

“Dig The Scattered Eyes of Stars”—Syncretism in Baraka’s Allah Mean Everything

1.    Introduction

Misconceptions about the later, or we could say mature, Baraka, abound. He’s been accused of anti-Semitism, anti-white “reverse racism,” homophobia, misogyny, preaching to the converted, ‘vulgar dualistic’ thinking. One white male poet-critic even referred to him as an “Uncle Tom.” Subtler , and less-judgmental, misconceptions include this sense of Baraka as a secular cultural materialist, who not only scorns institutional religions, but also the refuses to make room for spiritual yearnings in his relentless quest for liberation of oppressed people….[1]

Let’s take a famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) poem from Hard Facts(1974), the collection of poetry that inaugurated his transition away from Black Nationalism and the Cult. Nats to “The Third World Marxist Period,” “When We’ll Worship Jesus:”

Jesus need to be busted
Jesus need to be thrown down & whipped
Till something better happen
Jesus ain’t did nothing for us
But kept us turned toward the
Sky (him and his boy allah
Too, need to be checkd
Need to worship yo self fo
You worship Jesus….

Don’t victimize ourselves by distorting the world
Stop moanin about Jesus…and dyin for jesus
Unless that’s the name of the army
We building to force the land
Finally to change hands.
And let’s not call that Jesus…  

The vision here, as in the satirical “Dope” (1977)----must be/ the devil, it ain’t capitalism”-- is strictly secular, and was taken as divisive by some of the black Church men and women (even though Baraka on many occasions has made it clear that the black church has been a positive force in self-determination).

25 years later, in “Allah Mean Everything,” he reveals himself much further along at being able to “integrate the inhead movie show, with the material reality that exists with & without them” (as he called for in “Poem For Deep Thinkers”). Baraka has clearly not renounced what could be called “third world Marxism,” but he is further along at integrating it both with what was positive of his earlier phases, and a more elaborated spiritual grounding…that can thoroughly challenge the dominant American institutional religion and its syncretic mesh of Judeo-Christian Monotheism, mind body dualism and capitalism.

It may not be a particularly original idea to say that in 20thCentury Secular America, Money largely replaced God (quite a few stand-up comics have made a killing on the “Religion, Inc” bit), but what makes “Allah Mean Everything” more profound, and yield more insights and wisdom on repeated readings is that rather than just being a critique of institutional religion and its deep connection with sexist, racist, and classist capitalism is that it’s spoken from a place of deep spiritual longing and vision that is yet not incompatible with a cultural materialist analysis, and breath-taking linguistic play and music.

According to the dictionary, syncretism is both, “1) the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought, and 2), the merging of different inflectional varieties of a word during the development of a language.” In both senses of the word Baraka’s poem could be considered syncretic. Here, as elsewhere, he labors in the cultural superstructure to challenge the official mappings of Euro-centric thought (drawing connections between two or more specialized, and ostensibly unrelated, spheres of activity—for instance “the devil” and “Santa Claus”-- to expose the duplicity of the “normative discourse” of the official realities, to help create a new language (if not a new religion) at the frontlines where cultural materialism and spiritual idealism meet & divide & meet again…to fight against the racism, classism, and sexism that have thrived under a regime of mind-body dualism. 

I believe the spiritual “grounding” that informs the poem clearly shows his wife, Amina’s, influence on him. For his vision of the soul is a largely matriarchal, or at least anti-patriarchal, one. And, as such, it’s at once too philosophical and deep, and also too pun-laden and silly to fit nicely within the Perloff-Vendler-Bloom critical spectrum range, and thus not reach many whites who “love the Le Roi Jones stuff,” oh, and it’s “too much like a sermon” that at times slums it in “recognizably black vernacular” that’s not afraid to listen by telling as much as by showing.[2]

2.     Baraka’s Anti-Logocentric Metaphysics.

The poem begins with what seems to be a paradox, “Allah mean everything, before the word.”
This is clearly a reference to the Christian Bible’s account of the creation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (Genesis 1:1). In Christianity (or at least the Catholic church in which I was forced to go as a kid), this passage is often linked with a sequel, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” which suggests that, before the arrival of Jesus, the Word, in the above passage, was notflesh, and in fact preceded flesh, that humans, mere flesh, are separated from it. 

For decades, by the time of “Allah Mean Everything,” the concept of The Word with God, had been pejoratively termed logocentricismby many fashionable post-existential theorists, but Baraka makes it clear that he rejects secular 20th century quasi-metaphysical replacements for the concept of God or the Spirit such as Derrida’s difference. (“Death is a choice of ignorance. The Z row the hole for whole, the nothing when there nothing is nothing and nothing cannot be. Because even in your mind nothing exists as something. A thought”). The title suggests, on the contrary, that Baraka, is choosing Allah over the Christian God, or converting to Islam: indeed, in the beginning of this piece, there it is, the word, Allah-- but the word Allah never reappears in the poem. He’s clearly not saying everything mean Allah (God), because by doing such he would be reducing everything to the word. Rather, “Allah mean everything,” opens up beyond words and the divisiveness of mere meaning. He leaves the word “Allah” hanging in connotational suspension (though what he says about “God” later could easily apply to “Allah”).[3]

More important in this poem is the word “everything” as the poem’s positive spiritual grounding, “Everything is the one, the whole, to understand this is what holiness means.” Some claim that the word “Everything” could be too vague to have any particular religious, spiritual, or moral significance (for some it suggests a heretical pantheism, while others say everything can easily slide back into nothing, but Baraka understands the relational aspects of language enough to ground and define (and thus limit) this word “everything” by realizing that you can only say what holiness is (in words) if you devote a lot of time to saying what it isn’t.

Baraka’s alternative evocation of an everything before the so-called logocentric beginning intuitively makes sense if we consider what we know of creation and beginnings on a personal level involves speechless infants, or pre-verbal wombs. Everything is not just “before the word,” but also able to put it on trial (even if it has to use words to do that). Besides, if we believe the word came before us, then we have little hope of co-creating and/or contesting it, but if we realize thatwe(or at least everything) came before the word, then there’s hope, and room for thought to be free to allow us to rise above determinism and the tyranny of mere appetite.

As he continues, in a carefully chosen progression of words, he now links “the word” with the “slavemasters” and “the kings.” In Baraka’s sense, the “word” that is officially “the creation” was really the fall, the great divide. In the process, he not only offers an alternative creation myth, but one that is conversant with the fierce urgency of now, on both a personal and political level. The linkage of the word “Word” to the “slavemasters” makes sense if we consider that the fetishization of spirit in the monotheistic personal (or quasi-personal) “jealous” and “vengeful” God who demands loyalty and gets translated into the word “Lord” (or Baraka’s “absentee landlord”) to render the rest of us serfs of the lord, that separates us as humans (or not yet humans) from the eternal process of creation, creating.

3.    Baraka’s Anti-Patriarchal Creation Myth

And speaking as a male, from experience as well as intuition, he envisions a prelapsarian beginning in which “the women taught the rest of us, how to stand up straight, and dig the scattered eyes of stars of the other part of our wholeness, where surely we would go to be” (1), until “the hoarders of the earth” (male)….”created God because they could not be what they wanted with Good” (which could be translated to “created Allah because they could not be what they wanted with everything”).

“Evil created God so they could lie why Good was missing.” The introduction of the word “Good” here is essentially synonymous with “Everything” as it’s used in this poem (“who does the good is everything the all”). It, too, is a maligned, word, and it may seem to be a less philosophically sophisticated concept than “God,” but in Baraka’s poem “good” gains in meaning, and spiritual resonance, precisely by being contrasted to “God,” which he connects to the German word “Got” (as he connects the idea of “heaven” to “having not haven” to show how their very language betrays them). In this, the word “God” is used to prevent Good from happening; the word God is good missing a wheel and, as it turns out, also missing women.

Baraka plumbs the roots of the parthenogenetic fantasies of toxic masculinity that “character assassinated women as they threw them from the high place of art, the birthplace of what carries a visible soul, the womb.” (5) This account could be said to share similarities with writers as diverse as Huey Newton, and Laura (Ridng) Jackson, for instance, in her “creation myth” short-story, “Eve’s Side Of it,” at least in their characterization of men. In Riding’s creation myth storying, men “wanted to make more than there actually was, many and many and more things. For they thought what actually was was no better than nothing. “where is it?” they asked. “What is it? Who is it?” Naturally Lilith was not the sort of person to answer: It is here, it is this, it is I.” Lilith was everything, but she was also nothing in particular.”[4]

For both Riding and Baraka, men created the concept of God to overthrow women. Both Baraka and Riding refer to the current epic as “not yet human,” and for many of the same reasons, that the word “human” has usually just meant “male.” This does not necessarily imply an ultimate matriarchal attitude, but it’s clear in this later work that his wife, Amina, whose name can mean soul, had a profound influence on helping rescue Baraka from early attitudes that some would accuse of being male-ist, or homosocial. One may ask if Baraka’s piece falls into the trap of gender essentialism, or heterosexism in valuing women so much for the womb that men have envied, yet still deny them equality.[5]  But I think he sees, and praises, in women, a tendency to save the earth (and even men) from toxic masculinity through a spirituality that may also be practical (in a non-pejorative use of that term), as in this passage:

“And the animals the women taught/ To be with us, give us milk, and honey, and clothes and food, no longer/ Must we roam the forests every day, for a mouth full of food the only/pay.
The wise man said, the more time you must spend on seeking food and sustenance the less time you have to practice being human. The less time you have to practice your mind.”

In this pre-lapsarian (if not necessarily pre-historic), or even post-apocalyptic world, women were able to transform a hunting society into a gathering society, a nomadic society into a settler society, their domestication allows both genders to become more spiritual through exercising their mind, and thus save them from the greedy accumulative impulses….

The political argument would call for a re-distribution of leisure, to be fully human the slaves and working classes must be allowed to use their mind, to think. And Baraka knows his working class audience may not have as much time for his poetry as the leisure classes, “you got to go to work so you can remain poor and never understand much. Go through the world and never understand a thing. Except you got to go to work. Go to church all your life and never understand….(pg 9)” and perhaps that’s why he speaks in witty parables and koan-like questioning riddles (or low coups) so much in this poem, the kind that could reach a kid who reads Mad Magazine or likes Monty Python, and who’s known as a class clown. Yet, he doesn’t specifically get into the future materialistic possible utopia in this particular piece. Instead he embraces women, as creatures of mind and spirit as much as of body. He means “animals” in the non-pejorative sense here.

4.    Baraka’s moral transvaluation

Many other times in “Allah Mean Everything,” however, the word “animals” is used in the more pejorative sense, as in:
“What exists insists and resists, it’s
so tragic not to be human. So
ugly to be ruled by animals.” 

The hoarders are evil precisely because they deny a spiritual essence, “worships death, the earth, and calls the sky barren and empty, thinks space is a nothing filled with them and what they know….to be animal and prevent humanity from appearing.”

Rather than accuse Baraka of being a species-ist, who would not enjoy Dave Bartholomew’s “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” which inverts the myth of species superiority, I see Baraka a syncretic pragmatist of a new American language. For when people (or “a people”) present themselves wearing a “Sky Lord” mask, as an absentee Landlord God that tends to call the rest of us (especially black, and women) animals in a pejorative sense, calling these people “animals” is of strategic use, even if on the deepest level Baraka really means “worse than animals” or, as he puts it elsewhere “not yet human.” At one point, Baraka lets out a cry, “We have changed the actual sensuous knowledge of the earth into a slimy animal, spineless with dialectical tongue.” 

Baraka has also been accused of being too relentlessly, “us and them” (even if by many who would be included in his ‘us’), or even of “preaching to the converted,” but, as Kwame Davis puts it, in an insightful comment, ”Baraka’s sharply drawn camps of Good & Evil force him to admit he had not been immune to that evil,”(xiii) and I’d argue that the warm maximalism of this conscience-scouring work is so effective precisely because Baraka presents himself as also struggling against the temptation to fall in with the soulless who “did not dig the sun, those who created histories of words which dealt with nothing but the transportation of their appetites.”(3)

As appetites, it’s clear that Baraka locates the oppressor as inside, or potentially, inside ourselves (and he includes himself of not necessarily women), as in the few who are able to rule the many, as in this version of a creation/fall myth:

“So the place, the tree, the umbrella of our being, when we first rose,
began to suppose we were no longer what we had been, the unknown
feelings the biting the search for only food, and the instant death of
what we could not change. They became slavemasters and kings and
priests, and began to rule the world.” (Part One, paragraph 5, page 3)

To say “your appetites are slavemasters” and call the ruling class “terrorists of the stomach” (or equate the dictator with a dick whose god is nothing but orgasm) is no mere “simile,” but an extended body-politic metaphor, an elaborate psycho-social—cosmic-conceit that can also serve as an excellent rebuke to Menenius’s famous “allegory of the belly” in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and better Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals.” This raises many questions- Is it our appetites that rule us, or theappetites? When we let the appetites that we think of as our own rule us we’re really letting the ruling class rule us? Have those who are slaves to their appetites made those of us who are not slaves of appetites into slaves of theirappetites? Are these appetites even natural, or but a misreading of nature, by the same beasts, or money gods, who see in “war the reflection of natural flesh?” (Para 26, pg. 15) Have I become a spokesman for anti-life forces (or call it evil) without being aware of it? Has it infected the very language we use?

5.Baraka’s defense of the soul as creating creation

While Baraka would somewhat agree with Toni Cade Bambara once wrote “the English
Language is for mercantile business and not the interior life,” he also reminds us how difficult it is to speak of the life of the mind, and the spirit, without the insidious intrusion of economic terms, and that even the term “interior life” may evoke a kind of “self-storage” place or “memory bank,” or as he puts it:

“They say brain so you will think even thought, Good, is limited and inside, a muscle, not the will of what am you rising, a Black Bird, with burning short stories, history driving you….as space becomes time.” (Part Two, paragraph 11, page 9).[6]The reason they want you to limit, and narrow, or slave your mind (or brain),--not content with taking your body---is because they want to keep people divided in the shell of individualism:

On their money is their I
Disconnected and hovering
Above the abducted pyramid stashed
In the Metropolitan Museum…

My Eye, they say, stopping the rise the reach
For the soul, in the middle of the 
Air, where we have been & will go again
Even how we are the soul but that makes no sense
To our tiny brain

In a similar light, he recalls his brilliant early essay, and defense of thought and process-oriented art, “Hunting Is Not Those Heads On The Wall,” when he writes of how the invention or discovery of steel and electricity are “the grounding of thieves who make art a thing, not creation itself.” (Part One, page 5)---For Baraka, it’s irresponsible for an artist to tell a creation myth, and speak of thecreation without also seeing it in connection with his creating as an artist, so while this poem clearly is aware of its own commodified status, that it too inevitably will become another “head in the wall,” it’s soul, its life-force, is precisely in the transpersonal process it’s a part of, only that in this poem it’s more figured as gatheringthan merely hunting.

And part of this gathering is to free space to take back the word “soul” and “spirit” and “the good,” “wholeness” from the corrupted western tradition and, in the process, suggest a potential for social harmony in which women have a leading role. He also has positive things to say about Jesus here (“the sword was the word of what is real”). He accepts the passion, and even the gospel here, only denies the resurrection to conclude his sermon with “wemust rise again.” And when Baraka speaks of the soul, sometimes it takes the form of accepting his own moments of spiritual poverty to conjure (muse like) the creative spirit,  “But the soul was from the sun and who did not aspire to be again what it is and we are, unconscious and therefore small, and without the power and burning and desire and endless self of being and coming and becoming re-being re-seeing, all toward what we were when we knew we were.” (2)

5.    Conclusion
And, by the end he can remind us as well as himself “it is the place where we lie and steal which must be understood and so reveal ourselves to the world to everything.” For me, “Allah Mean Everything” becomes one of the strongest contemporary defenses of the spiritual, and/or idealistic tradition precisely because it’s not cut off from political argument (and vice versa). He concludes by telling us “Science is the only religion.” They only problem with this is that today’s billionaire spokesmen for science as a positive good would no doubt cry heretic at Baraka’s claim that “Science mean everything.”

Of course, music is a science too, and given the important of music (especially non-verbal music) in Baraka’s life and art and culture criticism, it may seem odd that there’s nary a mention of music in this poem. Yet the various musical registers this poem strikes---in the sense of phanopiea­—suggests that you may be able to evoke non-verbal music better if you do not “refer” to it.[7]You could even say that Baraka’s poem uses the worded mind against itself to clear a space for a new language, or wordless performance. And it may be important at this juncture to mention that when he read the poem in the basement salons held in his Newark house that it would be followed by a musical performance. But even before that, by the end of the poem I feel a catharsis, and a moral challenge to do something---and never cease to ask myself, “in what ways am I speaking for oppression, without even being aware I am?”

[1]According to Kwame Davis in his introduction to Somebody Blew Up America(2007), Baraka’s “faith is in political systems…He rarely, if ever, speaks of evil. His is a secularist conception.” (xxii). Though this may be the case in “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001) it hardly is in “Allah Mean Everything”(1999) and other later work. Although William Harris dates all of Baraka’s work between 1974 and 2000 in his third phase, “The Third World Marxist Period,” a brief comparison of poems that deal with institutionalized religions and spirituality from 1974 to 2000 suggest that his writing since the 90s could be considered a distinct phase, which I will not try to name here (perhaps others already have?)

[2]Nonetheless, discussions of race and racism are barely evident in the more widely circulated Part 1 of this poem (though they’re more evident in part 2).
[3]By contrast,  in “Beginnings: Malcolm,” in Somebody Blew Up America, Baraka celebrates Malcolm’s conversion from the devil of the dominant American god to the ‘lamb’ of Allah.
[4]Laura (Riding) Jackson, “Progress of Stories,” 287
[5]See especially Part 2, paragraph 12 and 13, page 10, for an account of parthenogenetic womb envy
[6]What am you, is more plural than “what is you.” by the way….

Friday, March 15, 2019

Some Thoughts on Words & Music Inspired By A Recent Piece by Ed Berrigan

 One question I often want to ask songwriters: do the words come first, or the melody, or groove? Many seem not to want to give away “trade secrets” (perhaps for the sake of mystique?). I was thus especially happy to read Ed Berrigan’s March 11thblog-post (“Navigating the Distance Between Music and Poetry”[1]) , as he shared some of his discoveries on his path to find a way to bring what he loves about poetry (for instance, “cut-ups, absurdity, and displacement”) into the formal strictures of song….Rather than choose, say, the way Mark E. Smith (or other avant-poppists) fracture song-structure as an exemplary model to strive for, Berrigan makes an excellent case for the kind of disjunctions found in a Willie McTell song, in a beautiful act of cross-genre syncretism, in ways that sees the genres not in any hierarchal relationship, but as equals.

I’ve always felt a special kinship with people who come to poetry first (especially post-Donald Allen anthology American, generally non-rhyming, or formal in the sense that most stanzaic song lyrics are), but then later become more devoted to music, or back and forth, “simultaneously,” in that liminal zone where genres wonder if they need border walls (or Venn diagrams), and, if so, why? And, of course, there’s seemingly infinite possibilities in exploring this, despite the perils of an overly specialized society…..[2]

There are many things I can relate to in Ed’s account. Little things, like not being shy about doing poetry readings at a young age, but very shy about performing music, or having to keep his ambition to write songs “secret” among his poet friends. Like Ed, I already had a public reputation as a poet before I took songwriting seriously. And like me, he found it difficult to create the kind of “dynamics I could create in my poetic lines” in the more emotional structures of song. I can also relate to taking poems of others and setting them to music. On the Single-Sided Doublesalbum, I set a Helen Adam ballad to my own melody and appropriated words from Clark Coolidge’s minimalist early book,Polaroid. I realized that Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme By William Carlos Williams” works as a cute waltz (KK told me he likes McCartney, but not Dylan); maybe I should revisit my unrecorded little English “music hall” (sung with fun mock accent) variation of an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, for comic relief. Do these songs do the poems justice? Perhaps not, but maybe I should try it again…(I think I’d rather be in a band to back up a great writer like we did with Delia Tramontina…..but I digress….)

I can also relate to finding it much more difficult to write song lyrics than poetry (and something tells me that it probably would’ve been easier to write lyrics hadn’t I been into poetry, or if I enjoyed end-stopped rhyming poetry as much on the page). And I, too, got frustrated and so began to look at poems I had written on the page, and tried to fit them to music, and the subsequent difficulties that strategy results in, the realization that “the writing wasn’t structured for melodic singing.” (6)

I especially love when Berrigan gets into a nut-and-bolts discussion, in such passages as:

“Refining the melody line to fit the musical structure still required many repetitions. I’d need to play a song dozens of time to refine the melody, and it was a struggle to edit the lyrics.”

At this point in his journey, he switches his compositional strategy, and stops writing lyrics in advance:

“In songs, the emotional resonance could be performed through the singing and the musical phrasing. In order to arrive at this naturally, the musical and lyrical generation both needed to happen spontaneously. I could pick a lyrical device, such as using the phrase "Goodbye Forever," a title of a poem by Steve Carey, as an alternating refrain. But rather than write it out, I'd pick a starting chord, hit record on a recording device, and create the song on the spot. If no words came, I'd sing out the shape of the lyrical line so that a more a natural syllabic structure was in place. From there I could gradually edit the words into a more coherent shape, with the syllable limits already determined. This also allowed room for the coherence to be tenuous.”

I love that tenuous coherence is the goal. I’ve come to a similar point in songwriting---with one possible exception. Though I hold it as a goal, I rarely, if ever, “create the song on the spot.” A template perhaps, but it would turn into something like:

“Goodbye forever, don’t know it won’t do nothing that is under down on blah blah top
Goodbye, till never, forgot if slop is shopping or if it only went to market just to rot….
DRUM. Goodbye forever my mind. DRUM. Goodbye forever my heart. 
DRUM. Goodbye forever clean break, DRUM ain’t that a good place to start
Clocks don’t tell time, but time don’t listen anyway….

(I love the melody though, so hopefully better words arrive…)

In Ed’s account of his creative journey, he generally started from the words, while I generally started from the music. It was only after I had recorded hundreds of simple, but catchy, vocal melodies (often made while on walks, bike rides, or swings) that either were sung as phonemes, or “dummy lyrics” (as a respite from the word rigor of poetry), that I considered the possibility that I should write words to them. Most of the melodies of songs from a 2001 (“debut”) collection of my songs came from at least 10 years earlier. And sometimes I think I should record some of these “phoneme” or “dummy lyrics”---but on the contrary sometimes I think I revise too much, and I could get tangled in the discrepancy between my standards and abilities (it’s a lot harder to write lyrics, when you don’t have a regular practice space, because you need to hear your actual voice, and not the voice in your head). Vexed, I say (or call it the blues….I’m another white guy who loves playing blues too….), and I, too, have a lot to learn!!

Just to say, thank you Ed Berrigan. I deeply appreciate your candor; you have both given me a lot to think about and made me feel less crazy & alone, and if you want to correspond about such stuff in the future, I’d be game (frankly, I believe there should be a book, especially after something Jasmine Dreame Wagner recently wrote, and listening to Nada Gordon sing her songs….and thinking about the struggles my multi-genre heroes and sheroes, this book could also include those who publish poetry, or other genres, but, as musicians, work in the non-verbal trenches, more as instrumentalists….more on this later…..)

[2]I’m generally less interested in those who became known as musicians and then publish a book of poetry. Most examples I’ve seen, the poems on the page seem to be more like outtakes from their lyrics—I never really cared much for Robert Hunter as songwriter, but he struck me as an exception in this regard, as he acknowledged when he published his first book of poetry late in life that he was still a novice as a poet, with a humility and devotion to the craft I found rare.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Thoughts Inspired by reading Anselm Berrigan’s “& What Does “Need” Mean? For the Parish Hall/ At St Mark’s Church”

Anselm Berrigan’s most recent book, Something for Everybody, concludes with a “Post-Crypt” called “What does ‘need’ mean?” written to be read at St. Mark’s Poetry Project the night after what Carla Harryman calls “the arrogance of the contemporary” reared its ugly head in the 2016 Presidential election. Against this backdrop, the St. Marks Poetry Project stands like a kind of fortress, or what today would be called a safe space. In the spirit of full-disclosure, I feel I must mention my love of, and nostalgia for, the presence of this venerable institution---from my first visit to see the late Lorri Jackson read for Richard Hell on my birthday in 1989 to my trans-continental flight there in 2005 for my last poetry reading in New York (a reading curated by Anselm by the way), and I’ve always associated Anselm with the spirit of what’s best about the Poetry Project: after all, he attended readings there as an infant.

That being said, this final piece is not merely a tribute to the Poetry Project, but asks such questions as: “Do you feel as if form has/ collapsed? If so, you can’t be a/ pigeon, alas, as I imagine….” Form, I suppose. could mean poetic form, but also the-life-we-took-for-granted form, to name but two. And somehow the spectacle of Berrigan, standing at the podium at St. Mark’s Church, on a night of collective trauma in which I’m sure much of the audience was reeling in a kind of desperation about what’s happening to, or by, America (and maybe tempted to take out their frustration by kicking a pigeon around) , and asking his audience for permission to imagine (“I can imagine, can’t I?”) seems to take on a mythic importance, as he reassures his audience “You do still/ get to say, even the day after election day, peace.”

He goes on to tease the reader with a distinction between “need” and “care,” but demurs to instead speak of privacy and listening. And listening to him, insofar as reading a book in privacy imagines listening at a public performance (and vice versa, like the black dot on the white side, on a flat representation of a globe) invites various sexy question-marks: Does one need privacy to be able to listen? Is listening care, and privacy need? Do I need to care or care to need, or why not both? And how does this relate to the question of form? I suspect that for Berrigan, this crisis of lost form may have something to do with the loss of privacy, or to put it positively, the privacy is what can give poetry form (for instance, Berrigan does not generally put his particular family or professional relationships into the poems in this book, although he will write collaborations withhis daughter)—but so can the listening (or the listening synergetically complements privacy by freeing us from form):

 “I need to be doing it, to practice/ listening, to get better at it and/ get at getting it better in the fucked/ up constellation that is your head/ becoming poetry, & to be encouraged/ by the mess… find out why in poems/ space is not an illusion” (97). Form is social, communal privacy; ethos is aesthetics, formal formlessness. Listening may be a way to protect one’s privacy, or at least to widen and occupy that ‘weekend void.’ It’s hard to tell if I’m drawn to lines that express the need to “let language get so disconnected/ from reality all you’re stuck with/ is definition as another emblem/ of fear---“ because of their wisdom or because of their phrasing. Can I say both?  There’s a healing permission to meet in fear, to let ourselves be strong enough to be proudly afraid, and not fear “fear itself” as if it can actually rescue us, so we may embrace the loss of form as potentially a new beginning….

I am well-acquainted with the fear of such letting go, not that it always prevented me from doing it, and I can also understand the clinging to conventions & definitions, but I like the way he doesn’t simply oppose conventions with the easy “outsider” alternative of the unbearable lightness of a “drunken boat” or “free radical,” but rather rhymes it with the word “companions” as if, indeed, conventions can get in the way of companions, or perhaps dance harmoniously together in a conversation during a smoke break at the Poetry Project in 1998 where “you wonder who’s going/ to challenge you to adapt,” and companions can create their own (overlapping) conventions……as if “from the bottom up” (like two pigeons taking off from a steamgrate?)….

If one can use the discourse of the sublime (purposeful purposelessness) in a non-pejorative way, in a world in which “being serious’s just one of many/ ordinary facts of commitment/ & not some dolled-up badge of complexity” (101), I doth could claim a smack of the high romantic subline (or non-western breath therapy, or eco-poetry) in “lives/ go where there’s no forms.”
Is it really that simple?

“Here, like anywhere that’s fought
however knowingly & unknowingly
for the right to be itself, on its own
terms, which only means letting
the folks who care enough to really
come through figure out how to
do that too, without much
interference, here has to be able to
freak out on itself out of loyalty
to itself, itself not being made
of any singular thingation.”

Does the poetry project become a form for formlessnesses? Or a formlessness for forms? Is it the “something for everybody” of the book’s title? Does describing something you love inevitably become a better self-description than if one were to immodestly list one’s virtues?
Anselm’s psycho-soul-scape of St. Mark’s as a sacred place adhering to certain conventions for the sake of companionship is not glamourized, but nevertheless glamourous as any moshpit utopian. How many poems has this place authored? Why do the poets who invoke the term polis often sound pretentious to me? (just coz I was almost going to say: The Poetry Project is a Polis!)

Yes, this can bring me back to those debates of the 90s in the shadows of those St. Marks’ spires (the doors were red, right?), as some of the 20/30 something “new breed” constantly being asked to “define ourselves” in relation to older poets’ divisions, lamented the fact that, in contrast to the older generation--say, the heroic generation of ’26ish who allegedly were more able to create a scene seemingly from the grassroots bottom up, or Ted & Alice’s days for whom the Poetry Project was a neighborhood nexus--in the 90s, hardly any of the younger poets could even afford to live in Manhattan (yet alone what developers were starting to call “the east village”). Some wondered (though sometimes I guess it’d be seen as arguing) about history: “why couldn’t we at least promulgate the myth of some kind of clean break with past ‘stuffiness’ (as Koch theatricalized in “Fresh Air” Koch)?” Perhaps because many of the so-called X (mostly white) generation poets I knew, met through the mediation of older companions and/or institutions like St. Mark’s or The Seque Space.  That whole youth “anxiety of influence” or “Michel’s iron-law of oligarchy” question---did the institution become as stuffy as what it rebelled against? And, if so, did it have a negative impact on our own development as writers and as a community? What is “poetic autonomy?”

Of course, we never got to the bottom of it. I tried to look to a broader common enemy---the property developers who were pushing us out, and then using us to push others out, etc…. I probably enjoyed much more standing near the back at poetry readings—near the book table---swaying my head, and even my hips (and often Meg Arthurs was nearby doing it so, and letting me feel like less of a freak) as I listened to poetry, always secretly (or maybe sometimes polemically) wishing there were more drums, and wanting to get home so I could read the book which of course I couldn’t really hear too well (for feeling-reasons similar to what Anselm talks about in this piece). And there were also nights that had more music; I even tried out the piano once or twice…

Anyway, reading Anselm’s piece makes me want to say to some of those “St. Marks haters” (and I won’t name names), it’s easy to blame an institution, or a convention, for not allowing you to do something you never asked for permission to do, and it’s too easy to take something for granted before realizing how many cities and small towns (where people can still walk to work or play) could benefit from something like the Poetry Project, (memories come back---the Newsletter often injected some serious fun into the poetry wars between L-A-N-G poetry, and New York School, for instance, and may have even played an important role in helping their ridiculous divisiveness to subside). I don’t know if it gave me a sense of “form,” but it gave me a sense of home that seemed more capacious than the niches of the poetry wars. What’s it like now? So many dead, but if Anselm is still fueled by it, I’m sure it’s great. Longing is weird…

In the above passage, I should underscore that the word “care” (which he had teased us with earlier) reappears, & now I’m really interested in how care and need relate to each other, for Anselm, &/or for me. But, instead of offering an essayistic conclusion to this question, he ends his talk, and his book, with a poem by his step-father Douglas Oliver that begins, “kindness acts idly or unnaturally, /leads you into fear. Act in kind.” And I wonder if need bound up with care can equal kindness, at least as a “beginner’s math” starting point to be put on trial…..but the idea feeling that kindness “leads you into fear” resonates deeply, and recalls his earlier line about “definition as an emblem of fear.” In any event, since part of the point of this lyrical essay was to make room for the need to listen, it’s only fitting that the book would leave us, with Anselm listening to (and passing on) Oliver’s words…(which means it’s time for me to stop trying to paraphrase, summarize, or analyze Berrigan’s words, so I can better listen….)

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rest in Peace and Power Chris Brown

I’m still in shock, and probably 5 simultaneous stages of grief right now (heavy hearted? Bursting hearted?)…..but I have to try to say something, by way of tribute, at the risk of missing something essential, and this end up being more about me than Chris Brown….I guess I only knew a sliver of his life, but I wish to celebrate…..I don’t like to use the term “star student” coz it implies favoritism, but if anybody was, Chris Brown was.

2014: I was teaching my first creative writing class in 5 or 6 years, and still very much mourning Amiri Baraka who had recently died, and since I taught at a school where whites are a minority, and it was a multi-genre class, I thought The Amiri Baraka Reader would be a perfect model text for work in various genres. The first night of class, I arrived 30 minutes early, and there was already a student sitting there reading the Baraka reader. “Wow,” I said, “I see you bought the text already. I didn’t know the bookstore had it yet.” He looked at me puzzled, “The Baraka reader? Oh, I’m just reading it on my own.” That’s how we met (he loved to tell others that story….)

And, in his classroom performance the entire semester, he seemed to, intuitively (if not necessarily ‘naturally’) have the word “teacher” written all over him. He had strong, clear righteous political analysis, but often kept them in reserve, and let others talk even if he disagreed. He chose his battles and earned an authority, I believe, with everybody in the classroom with when he would weigh in with insightful, empathetic analysis of others creating writing. He helped make the class run more smoothly as mediator. Often I felt he was more like a co-teacher, or taught me more than I taught him—for instance, about James Baldwin, Afro-centric theory, etc. Yet, he seemed surprised when I asked him, “have you ever thought about teaching?” I think we were both trying to reinvent ourselves when we met (I’m told he was a personal trainer in a past life/)…

He became a tutor in the writing center, and, in the 3 years he was at Laney, he took full advantage of the (alas, too few) extra-curricular resume-building opportunities Laney can offer while at the same time working as activist to put the community back in community college—serving in student government, the steering committee for the Laney College teach ins, on the frontlines of the anti-gentrification struggle, and helping to spearhead the Umoja-UBAKA program, all the while keeping his grades up so he could transfer with some financial aid to U.C.—Davis and continuing to work on his creative prose, drama, and poetry. The wide net he cast reminded me of myself in undergrad….(and sorry if this sounds more like a teacher’s “recommendation letter”)…

I invited him on my radio show to read his creative writing and also talk politics, current events, systemic racism, etc. On air, it became almost immediately apparent to both of us that we had a verbal chemistry, and he became co-host of my show and immediately made it better. We brought in other students, and began plotting ideas for future shows. We were just getting started. Unfortunately, do to scheduling issues, the show was not renewed….

Chris Brown had so many talents, he debated with himself on possible majors and seemed relieved when I told him you don’t have to major in English as an undergrad to be able to get into an MFA Creative Writing program should he choose that route. He made me feel like I was helping him, even if I’m not so sure I was….We stayed in touch after he left Laney (his FB posts were often very informative and insightful; he was the first to show me the BBQ Betty video before it went viral, for instance….). He kept me posted on his adjustments to Davis as a more impersonal environment in which he’d find himself in that position of being the only black in classes, and the burden of having to represent, etc….and the hyprocrisy of the self-proclaimed radical (Marxist or anarchist) professors who marginalize racism, etc…..The future? He said he’s like to go back to Oakland and give back…..he also said he’d like to check out Africa (Liberia?)….and of course keep writing. He was only starting to publish, but he was patient and disciplined and had long term projects….even as he posted some poems in FB. He was one of the kindest people I’ve met in recent years, and, though I don’t have many non-FB or non-professional friends these days, I hope it’s not presumptuous to say he was one of my closest friends, and I still can’t believe he’s gone. Rest in power as peace!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

April Drafts #10

4. For Shane Frink

Ever feel struck in an after picture called disability?
If I make light of my own personal trauma, would you accuse me of making fun of yours?

If I weren’t too busy comparing myself to those who compare,
I’d consider buying a performance enhancer disguised as an anti-depressant

If I make light of my own personal trauma, would you accuse me of making fun of yours?
Like that Up & In Truth App that can make some appreciate being down & out

I’d consider buying a performance enhancer disguised as an anti-depressant
Coz it doesn’t matter if I’m havingfun if I can befun

Like that Up & In Truth App that can make some appreciate being down & out
& I can dig the way repeat’s fingers push the buttons you can call mine

Coz it doesn’t matter if I’m having fun if I can befun
As if my happiness is absolutely dependent on yours, and I fail

& I can dig the way repeat’s fingers push the buttons you can call mine
& gladly acknowledge your suffering’s worse than mine from jump

As if my happiness is absolutely dependent on yours, and I fail
But 50 year olds may feel more futurity than they felt at 20

And I’d gladly acknowledge your suffering’s worse than mine from jump.
Ever feel stuck in after picture called disability?

But 50 year olds may feel more futurity than they felt at 20
If I weren’t too busy comparing myself to those who compare

Thursday, January 4, 2018


 (too long for a tweet; too topical for a poem)

It’s 2017, & the billboards claim “Victory”
& evoke 1960s “radical chic”…
Men & women, black & white
smiling, flashing the peace sign
that was originally the victory sign
(closer to the camera, the V
is bigger than the face)
as if the culmination of a 50-year struggle.

It’s 2017 on the streets where 50 years ago,
they proudly chanted “all power to the people!”
the new billboard honors that history
by claiming “Flower to the people!”
Who needs power if you got flower?
Who needs need if you got weed?
Yet it’s hard for me to celebrate
gentrified neoliberal flower power
even if I run the risk of sounding
like Jeff Sessions, “I used to like
The klan before I found out they smoked pot”
(enter the cultural critic)

When Kanye West sampled Gil Scott Heron’s “Comment #1” (1969) in “Who Will Survive in America” (2010), he edits out lines like “The irony of it all, of course, is when a pale face SDS motherfucker dares look hurt when I tell him to go find his own revolution….. He is fighting for legalized smoke, a lower voting age, less lip from his generation gap and fucking in the street. Where is my parallel to that? All I want is a good home and a wife and children and some food to feed them every night.”

I guess Kanye didn’t think those lines
were relevant 50 years later….(or he’s bought?
I don’t think it’s proper for a white to call
a black man a “Tom”). And a Latina writes
“unfortunately, in California, people are more
 interested in legalizing drugs than people.”

& if the non-violent thing you’re in jail for is no longer a crime,
shouldn’t you be freed immediately and, as reparations,
be allowed to resume where you left off?
or are you now just “the competition”

someone had to jail so they could corner the market…
along with the Monsanto Gen-Mod Big Pot Agri-business
coming to a pothead near you

#Harborside #JeffSessions #Warondrugs