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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thinking About Poetry Readings & Collaboration In Time Of Cultural Crisis (for Kiyomi Tanouye, R.I.P)

Thinking About Poetry Readings & Collaboration In Time Of Cultural Crisis
 (for Kiyomi Tanouye, R.I.P)

I haven’t got asked in a long time, but I turned down a poetry reading today. I used to do them all the time. Excuses, excuses. I’m not ready. It’s been over a decade since the last book, “aside from my job, I’ve become a hermit,” etc…..but does the feeling of being crippled, not fully comfortable in body, an awareness of metal where there should be leg, have something to do with it?

One aspect of the PTSD I’ve struggled with since that near fatal accident in 2004 I probably need to come to terms with is a phenomenon you could call “stage fright.” I stopped doing poetry readings when people asked until they stopped asking, but I don’t know if fear is really at the essence of it.

As I lie bedridden, I thought back to the days when I had two good legs, and those long NYC trudges through the brown ice and snow, with a group often as big as 20 (mostly) poets, looking for a bar or restaurant with circular tables for a more democratic post-reading talk than was possible at the places with long thin “last supper style” tables which encourage hierarchical pecking orders. And, during these walks, the conversational pairing off that happened was almost as fun and enlightening as when we finally got to sit in the bar (and occasionally switch seats so we could be social fireflies), but that seemed no longer possible now that such walks were impossible, and, besides the Bay Area is not the walking city NYC was (except perhaps during Litquake or Beastcrawl).

 It was often on these walks or restaurants afterwards that I felt that poetry came socially closest to being a collaborative art form (even if, or maybe even because, the conversations were not themselves commodified). In NYC, many mastered the art of talking over someone in order to listen better!

Indeed, the riot of enthusiasms issuing from many inwardly directed writers could be intoxicating, and even detoxifying, like these conversations (even if at times contentious), allowed us to unleash much of that energy pent-up from the protracted solitude our art required. These conversations were also fertile ground for our writing to perhaps unpack or sort or, on the other hand, let exist as fragments (or, in my case, somewhere between; I should probably mention that this was before Facebook did a number on the fragment). This mysterious, and/or even glorious, symbiosis, or see-saw, that could occur between the solitary and the social was on full display here. It was perhaps the closest that poets and novelists could get to that feeling when a bunch of musicians decide that they’re sick of their solo acts, and will gladly settle for only having 2 or 3 songs on an album to be part of a “super group” that can create a sound larger, or deeper, than the sum of its parts.

The “poetry reading” that occasioned this wasn’t really the performance, but rather the pre-text, or as one friend put it, “the poetry reading’s like the emperor’s new clothes,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you need a “thing” (or pre-text) or nothing’s gonna happen.

It’s easy to forget how relatively new the whole standard of the poetry reading is. It wasn’t so big in Williams’ and Stevens’ day. Even O’Hara did relatively few. The so-called “founders” of the American Canon, Dickinson and Whitman demurred, and, as Anselm Berrigan put it back in the 90s, “Catallus never had to go down on a mic.” It rose, perhaps, as a democratizing tendency in the 50s and 60s. I think I embraced it because it could save the page from itself (just as the page could save the stage from itself): When I first started giving readings, I learned it’s always important to read some work you don’t consider finished so you can hear what you sound like trying to say it to a room full of people. You can tell if you come off pretentious, but then some are charmed by what others consider pretentious, and that is probably unavoidable, but a lot of this is happening on an unspoken level, and it doesn’t matter if you’re just projecting because it helps you revise. Perhaps that’s the highest function of the reading?

Yes, I too have enjoyed the speedy wash of words over me, as I stood at the back of St. Mark’s Poetry Project, with Meg Arthurs, swaying and crossing the line, a little too much for some, into dancing, and, yes, feeling the beautiful disorientation and the implied task of later, in solitude, reading the book, if there was a book.

I have loved the readers who aspire more to “stand-up comedy” as well as those who aspire more to prayer (though preferring the more collective Afrocentric notions of praise to the Euro-American dominant forms). And I’m enough of a narcissist to have loved the sound of my electrically amplified voice when I lean into the microphone and recite soft and deep, and then step away from it and get louder and flail. Ah, but what’s a poetry reading without the post-reading soiree? Is it as barren as a computer without an internet?

At the typical poetry reading, the room was mostly filled with other poets. This is largely a group for whom the essence of artistic creation is solitary, individual, and/or “sullen” and/or “nest like,” a community of inwardly directed folks (which is not necessarily synonymous with shy. I speak as one of these people, and am proudly introvert!), and there’s nothing wrong with that! Yet even back in the days when I did many poetry readings (though I aspired to the kind of ‘in between poem’ digressions that Creeley and Baraka often did; word-jazz), I was skeptical about whether the standard ritual and/or institution of the poetry reading did justice to the poems, and I know others felt the same way.

For me, what made a poem on the page such an experience is that I (and I don’t think I’m alone in this) can spend more time on the sentences and lines, and slow down time! I can spend an hour on a poem that you spent 3 minutes reading at the reading (which is much better than spending 5 minutes hogging up or “wolfing” down something you spent 3 hours cooking), and intimately enter into a conversation with it. I can go back and forth between two poems, in two different books, and write while reading, bike around the block to decompress and them come back and read it again. It’s like a solitary sublimated version of the collective moshpit molecule dance, and the walls come a’ crumblin’ down (or are built again, more beautiful, superior---of doors).

At the reading, by contrast, it’s more difficult to catch up with words that some might say “slither while they pass they drift away.” I could latch onto something you said in the third poem, but by the time the reading was over I had forgotten and after the reading we talk and I’m like “wow, there was something really great in your third poem, but I uh…..forget,” and of course some take that as an insult. Or I could sit there, or stand there, taking notes (Bruce Andrews would show by example, and I appreciated that!), but some would take that as an insult….

Ever notice how many times poets apologize if anybody in the audience has heard a poem before, in contrast to musicians? Does anybody else (aside from Kaya Oakes, author of “Why Poetry Readings Suck”) feel that the standard (white) reading creates an event-matrix in which most of the audience feels alienated from the essence of creation, as even perhaps does the one performing his or her poem? And, what alternatives would you suggest? I’m certainly not going to suggest making them On-line! Whatever negative I say about the reading-centric culture, it would be even worse if made more ‘virtual.’

And I could get on my high horse and say that the standard idea of a poetry community mediated socially by the “reading” promotes a climate and a culture of glut, as if we would have been more glamourously, intimately, and efficiently “fed” by the reading if, instead of reading 20 pages in the 20-to-30 minutes allowed, we’d perhaps read one or two pages and then have a discussion about it. This form of distribution would honor the “less is more” aesthetic that poetry often relies on. That does seem to happen on special occasions (like when PennSound has those Poem-talks, and, the model that collection Writing/Talks put together in the late 80s still has potential), but I seriously believe the poetry scene, as a whole, would benefit if we considered doing more of this. I mean, if we’re gathered together to honor the writing, we might as well let the writing come alive verbally (not to snuff out improvisation, but we could even announce the text, or at least one of them, in advance, so people can come prepared with questions).

And if you get to noticing that this starts to sound suspiciously like a classroom, perhaps it’s an occupational hazard. Speaking only for myself, I’ve found the creative writing workshop more collaborative, collective, and communal than 99% of poetry readings. [1]I’m not suggesting we entirely replace the standard reading, but at least ask ourselves ways we could do better, to supplement rather than supplant. Not that “getting” the words the way you do when reading in solitude is always the most important aspect of the performance if the sound of the reader can evoke a feeling, and, certainly, if the reading includes music, to engage our bodies, I have no problem with not “getting” all the words.

Maybe I’ll do a reading again, but I feel I need music, and not simply phanopiea….. Music, at its performative essence, makes more room for call and response, and is more collaborative and democratic. Despite the much touted biopic stories or legendary bands breaking up because of “egos” or “musical differences” (to say nothing of record labels trying to play band members off each other to double their profits), looking at the way music operates socially from the perspective of “the poetry scene,” the fact that these bands even got together in the first place almost becomes a superhuman feat of collectivism! That’s partially because there’s a different ontology proposed than for poetic creation. Since the creation of the artifact happens more collectively, on a de facto (if not quite de jure, alas) level, there’s a more visceral democracy in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; sure, our solitary art may have helped prepare us for it, but it’s easier to break down some walls between individuals as well as the audience and the performer.

But collaboration in poetry is generally considered a novelty, or “something extra;” it’s a stunted art compared to music. It’s certainly more difficult (if not impossible) to argue that it is the essence of poetic creation, but maybe poetry readings or “poetry scenes” could benefit if we encouraged more collaboratively written poems (combining lyric and narrative perhaps). We could demand that every MFA program have at least one course in collaboratively written poems (or that each graduate thesis must include at least 20% collaborative poems), and there should be more book contests for collaborative pieces. I believe such modest proposals could help combat the tyranny of essentialism and individualism that so many poets, on paper at least, are right to call out but that nonetheless haunts much of the literary world, on a “poetics of institutional structural level” that many resign themselves to. It could also help create a larger audience for poetry if you’re into that kind of thing.

Feel free to argue with me, or to refuse, but I believe it could have positive aesthetic and ethical consequences, even if we stop shy of pooling our resources for a live/work/performance venue to help revitalize local culture in an era when Big Tech is doing its best to destroy what’s left of it. Or, I could get all manifesto like, and say, “we demand a moratorium on all poetry readings that are not either dance shows, or organizational meetings”—but it’s probably better to make it a character in a polyvocal poem or piece of “flesh fiction.” Music, of course, is often an organizational meeting even when it’s not (just as music therapy is often more effective when it’s not called that), especially in times of cultural crisis, and, again, I think of Kiyomi Tanouye, who perished in the Oakland warehouse fire of 2016. She had a knack for creating multi-genre events in which introverts and extroverts could meet from the ground up in which the poets don’t feel crowded out by the dancers.

Chris Stroffolino

[1] See Notes To An MFA In Non-Poetry (Spuyten Duyvil, 2017).