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

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Book Review: Hourglass Studies, Krysia Jopek (Crisis Chronicles, 2017)

Today, when the word “hourglass” is used, it’s more likely to modify “figure” or “economy.” Yet, when I was a kid, we used to make fun of a soap opera that claimed, “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” But what does that mean exactly? I think they meant it like “funny how time slips away,” as if turning it over means death? But, as a time-measurer, the hourglass and the (electric, non-digital) clock both figure time more as a circle than a line (even if you can’t turn back the hands of time). The clock may be self-contained, but the hourglass needs something to turn it over if the sands are to return to the other side, and while a clock is thought of as measuring a day, in Krysia Jopek’s Hourglass Studies (Crisis Chronicles, 2017), the hourglass measures the year (and maybe even “our lives”).

Many poets and writers have considered the analogy between the day and the year (noon is like the summer solstice, midnight the winter solstice, and evening an equinox), but viewing the seasonal cycles as the primary scope rather than the diurnal cycle gives Jopek’s poetic sequence more gravitas (it’s one thing to say “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” and quite another to plead, “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” or dream of “second innocence” or “next time is the best time” as if it wouldn’t be winter had you not made some dreadful error in summer):

“A clock points the exit    of bliss   balanced with  the least
severe   bitterness.   To want so much and turn over      pliant grains
of sand     without meaning. (1)

The clock is active; the hourglass passive; time itself seems absent. Is it the clock that wants to turn over the hourglass’s sands? Is pointing out the exit the same as wanting so much? Is the hourglass more like time itself than a clock is? What is time if not measured? What is time if measured? Does the clock really start it? Like the unmoved mover, or the logos that allegedly comes before the flesh (time)? Can measuring devices evoke the unmeasurable?

For those who are looking for ‘speaker and situation’ to ground this poem from these potentially infinite questions, one could this say it takes place “in the month of winter solstice/ when the change is due to come” (as Syd Barrett put it, setting the I-Ching to music), and, in this sense, they provide an alternative ritual to navigate the month in which American suicide rates are highest than the ready made pseudo-religious rituals of secular Xmas. Of course, the winter solstice can be “a metaphor for” a personal psychological journey, (“the illusion of starting over” 13), as if this point of the darkest sand grain second is one with the indivisible void, or the illusion of transcendental timelessness, where the center becomes the conference, but I feel this book gains power if you read it in December (or in June for Australian readers).

To “brace” for winter, to be forced to breathe in cold air and see your breath…..It’s an “uphill” struggle, a descent into darkness, a crisis poem, trying not to merely wait, trying not to cling so tight as to strangle the gift. As the winter solstice approaches, one may be more likely to feel “time’s defiant passing.” Scared of the dark and the cold, the Anglo-Americans debate is it better to hope for spring, have a “mind of winter” (they say NYC’s tough, well, I’m tough!), give in and embrace the darkness (even if you have to hibernate, turn yourself off---as opposed to over—to do so)….and let desperation have its day, aware of the dangers of pure poetry, while “skipping backwards through the hurricane” (15). Krysia Jopek fiercely flirts with many of these survival strategies, and finds a few to be immortal and free (though not without a wry gallows humor; perhaps that’s what she means by [melanc]holy). For instance, I could call Section IX an ode to the strength of fragility (pg. 17-18), and a no-nonsense account of the terror of being abandoned like a clock by time (or time by a clock), and the trauma of isolation (or is it the isolation of trauma?):

“Magnetized to the floor, the character cannot arise from the death scene, forgotten by everyone else on stage. The audience already went home and dig cathartic holes.” (18)

But such a thematic reading of Hourglass Studies can run the risk of reducing it to “those story facts, dust of the empirical, collage spun into pastiche by emphatic critics stripping the coda. Everything reified; go home.” (2), and, more intimately, Jopek’s brilliantly condensed almost aphoristic short numbered sections become like the sands in the hourglass, the grains of sand Blake could see worlds in (like snowflakes, no two alike); many of these poems use the language of measurement to evoke an unmeasurable world, even as the contemporary socio-political world makes occasional appearances (section III, pg. 5-6).

One of the greatest pleasures of this book is the severe (if not necessarily stark) forms of intimate shape-shifting (“Impeccable” 23) attention to turns of phrase that have the power to both slow down defiant time as well as speed up the transitions (and become more like time than a statue), while never losing its authority falling into “mere language play.”  Reading it, I think of Tristan Tzara’s “the wonder of the word; around its center the dream called ourselves,” relishing Jopek’s ambivalence about whether “to be fully on-guard” (15) while still letting the double-meaning exceed logic’s grasp and compel hours of timeless wonder.

Perhaps I could do better justice to this book by just quoting some of these sections that especially grabbed my attention (I wonder if I posted them on Facebook—out of context---if it would turn more people on then this attempt at review)…

“Someone convinces we were needed in that house where sorrow slips in on a Saturday, accordions the stairs.” (9)

“Wrists ache for a paintbrush to supersede the photograph. Neck falls to confound interval, whispers to the knees to straighten and heal, forget the long winter up ahead.” (12)

“Names can be changed, change can be given, wind can push light objects through the street.” (13)

Push me! The boy orders    the swing    tangling verdant
[lush] decrescendo[s] [of] the marshland   arching   from the

One of her most [dis][ch]arming devices is the use of brackets that push the envelope of language’s ability to harbor multiple meanings, perspectives and moods, which tend to get more complex as the book progresses:

…..the hand[le] slips out of focus, displaces the current…(7)

…the last day of vacation around the [is]land, different each time…(7)

…Torrential downpour and thunder [deco]rate sleep to tell of the [s]hip, the [t]rain, the waiting to be carried [a book] under someone’s arm” (14)

“pass out pain[t] for everyone”

“Furiously night after night [p]urging emotions.”

“The goodbye proven with [photo]graphs, waiting for the roof to heal, undo the laces, finish the prop[hecy], so there could be surprise again without the ego’s shallow pit[fall].” (19)

“The notebook [of winter] fell from the wind[ow]. Everything heavy when days are X-rayed by night, the chest falls back [in c]loud.” (20)

“Another comes to title the composition [Melanc]holy.”(20)

“The feet sting upon landing: memory [g]losses ambit[ion]. (20)

By the time we reach the final poem (section XII, as in clocks have 12 hours, years have 12 months, etc), the eponymous word “Hourglass” finally appears for the first time, even though there had been many clocks: “The hourglass flipped the conversation over. How to end when one doesn’t recognize the beginning?” The poem had begun with the desire (or is it need?) to turn over hourglass, as if the hourglass is a passive device, but here the hourglass is an active power, as if, like a clock, it has hands afterall, though not rendering people—at least as characters-- superfluous. In the process, many dualisms seem to resolve themselves (though not in a once-and-for-all static way). “I wake and remember I am [a] stranger.”…..Being what they seem,…..time again has meaning” Or, even better:

The director’s arms rock the camera and eucalyptus
And [time] becomes a [chara]acter”

(Is an “acter” a cross between an actor and an aster?) Being and seeming, Jopek both is and isn’t saying time becomes a character, coming to accept that time will always be defiant, but then again so will the hourglass. The ending of this poem reminds me of the Rilkean sublime that mixes “beauty and terror” (Duino Elegies) which in a way enacts the hourglass turned back to the poem’s beginning (with a Rilke quote), while at the same time evoking the green of spring, as if writing this poem got her through the winter….if you’re looking for a kind of happy ending in which worry is transformed into wonder……either way, this book helps quicken the mind, and may help prevent the onslaught of Alzheimer’s and other conditions they say we’re prone to in the winter of our lives…..

Chris Stroffolino