Third Factory/Notes to Poetry

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Attention Span 2011 | Andrew Schelling

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Ian Hamilton Finlay | A Model of Order: Selected Letters on Poetry and Making | WAX366 | 2009

A tiny volume, edited by Thomas A. Clark with astounding restraint—the introduction checks in at about 100 words. Creeley, Zukofsky, Gael Turnbull, Ronald Johnson, and eight or so others are Finlay’s correspondents here. Readers get to witness Finlay’s struggles to describe “thingpoems” (his early term for concrete poetry), specifications for one-word poems (it all depends on the title), and ruminations on how to live and how he edited his magazine Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. Of concrete poetry he writes that “by its very limitations [it] offers a tangible image of goodness and sanity; it is very far from the now-fashionable poetry of anguish and self” (1963).

Aleister Johnson | Zephyrus Image: A Bibliography | Poltroon | 2003

This book should be read by every practicing American poet, before the unbridled political interventions & nutty humor of the 1970s drift off into history. Yes, Johnson’s volume is a bibliography—the third in his San Francisco trilogy that includes Auerhahn and White Rabbit Presses—but first you get 170 pages of freewheeling accounts of a vital poetry scene, portraits of poets, printers, political activists, and their friends, all in the San Francisco epoch of the Diggers, Watergate, eco-activism, psychedelic drugs, and of course old-fashioned letter-press printing the likes of which never been seen elsewhere. The heroes are Michael Myers and Holbrook Teter, who operated Zephyrus Image as a guerilla interventionist platform, producing exquisitely made press-objects, often in the form of disarmingly comical comments on the day’s political events. How they got their material out so fast is probably a storybook lesson in energy & optimism. Their collaborators were Ed Dorn, Tom Raworth, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Beverly Dahlen—and the book is written grippingly well, leaking humor and spirit juice everywhere.

James Thomas Stevens | A Bridge Dead in the Water | Salt | 2007

The bridge of the title is the land bridge of the Bering Strait, which anthropologists hypothesize North America’s Indians used to migrate from Asia. Many Indians don’t believe the story-line though, and this book is part of that counter-tradition. Hence a bridge (theory) dead in the water. Stevens is a fine poet, mixing political outrage, Projective tendencies, tneder poems of love, with a wellspring of humor. After demolishing the “bridge” in the book’s first section, he travels to China and those poems are sly but also reverential.

Carolyne Wright, trans. | Majestic Nights: Love Poems of Bengali Women | White Pine | 2008

If you’ve been put off by the modern poetry you see from India, then give this book a try. Carolyne Wright, a fine translator, has traveled Bengal & Bangladesh, and her selection is superb. Bengal has always been noted for its poets, but rarely have the women been visible. Bitingly contemporary, yet the poetry echoes and reechoes with the images and emotional responses of vast traditions and counter-traditions. Excellent notes on the poems, and biographies of the poets.

Robert Bringhurst | The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing & Meaning | Gaspereau | 2004

Bringhurst, who lives in British Columbia, is not well known to Americans—unless you happen to be a printer. In that case his The Elements of Typographic Style sits in your print shop at arm’s reach. A fine essay writer, author of about the best book ever written on oral literature (A Story as Sharp as a Knife), Bringhurst is also a poet and book designer. This little volume is his tribute to writing systems. I’ve read it three times and need to go through it again. Funny how we writers can know so little about writing—not only our own specific system, but about the way writing systems around the world are organized. Arabic, Chinese, Algonquian languages: what are the glyphs or symbols they use, and what relationship do the symbols hold to speech? Tiny in dimension, but full of superb illustrations—Bringhurst designed the book himself of course.

Rabindranath Tagore, trans. Chase Twichell & Tony K. Stewart | The Lover of God | Copper Canyon | 2003

Unlike traditions from China or Greece, India’s fine poetry has rarely attracted good translators. Put this volume, translated by Chase Twichell and the Bengali scholar Tony Stewart, on that small shelf, alongside Ezra Pound’s Kabir, Denise Levertov’s medieval Bengali lyrics, and a few other volumes. If you’ve wondered how a Nobel Prize winner like Tagore can look so execrable in English, this is the place to get an alternative. Until now I thought the only Tagore worth an American paying attention to were the films of Satyajit Ray. While the poems of this volume are grand in the old erotic-devotional tradition—love affair of Krishna and Radha—they turn out to have been composed by Tagore under a pseudonym when he was a teenager—and he foisted them on the Bengali literati of his day. It was a great Modernist literary hoax, worthy of a Dada saint. Or could it have been more than that? Tagore was still working on these stanzas at his death nearly seven decades later. If any book might propel India’s archaic traditions of spirit & eroticism into the new millennium of skepticism & passion, this is it.

Shin Yu Pai | Adamantine | La Alameda | 2010

Another excellent collection of poems by Shin Yu Pai. Her use of line break, and the clarity of her image, are breathtaking. Many poems draw on tales lifted out of the news, others respond to contemporary visual artists, and most have a photographic precision. Maybe less humor than in the earlier La Alameda volume, Equivalences, but the depth and intensity have gathered more fully here. Subtle underpinnings include wry response to media portraits of Asian and Asian American individuals. Shin Yu Pai likes to work in sequences, but many of the poems stand alone, creating distant echoes off one another, and resounding into her other books.

Pekka Hamalainen | The Comanche Empire | Yale | 2008

An eye opening revision of the history of North American’s western plains & mountain regions. It documents the rise of an indigenous empire—on the Southern Great Plains, through the Southwest, and along the Front Range of the Rockies—which turned the Spanish imperial dream of a northern New Spain into a defensive rear-guard action, and which thwarted Anglo-American expansion for a century or more. This is the story of Comanchería, with a deep analysis of how the Comanche, mastering the horse & the use of metal for weapons and tools, became exceptional fighters, politicians, & traders, and eclipsed 18th century European efforts at Empire.


Andrew Schelling, poet & translator, is author or editor of twenty titles, most recently From the Arapaho Songbook (poetry) and The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. He has published six books of translation from India’s classical or medieval poetry, a volume of essays, Wild Form, Savage Grammar, and has recently taken up study of the Arapaho language. He teaches at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Schelling’s Attention Span for 2010. Back to 2011 directory.

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