Third Factory/Notes to Poetry

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Attention Span 2011 | Michael S. Hennessey

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Ron Padgett | How Long | Coffee House | 2011
Ron Padgett | Tulsa Kid | Z Press | 1979

When Ron Padgett’s latest book, How Long, came in the mail, I happily dropped everything and spent the afternoon reading it cover to cover. I first had the pleasure of hearing some of these poems during the Tulsa School Conference Grant Jenkins organized at the University of Tulsa in November 2009, as part of a career-spanning set of poems focusing on Padgett’s Oklahoma roots, and relished being able to see them in print for the first time. Ron’s one of our greatest everyday elegists—a role in which he’s sadly had far too much practice—and those talents are on full display here, for dear friends both recently and long-since departed, and for Padgett himself, as he faces his own mortality and reflects on his life’s work. Reading these poems against Tulsa Kid, written nearly half a lifetime before, makes this feeling of loss even more acute. Of course, in both books we also find plenty of Padgett’s trademark wit and casual conceptualism, which tempers and sweetens the rawer emotions, and the earlier volume also includes a number of playful collaborations with Joe Brainard and George Schneeman (my personal favorite featuring a tiny cowboy riding a rooster with the caption, “shit on you”).

Alice Notley | Culture of One | Penguin | 2011

Like Padgett’s latest, I first heard excerpts from this book in Tulsa and was grateful to have it as a companion during a very hectic week traveling from Cincinnati to Philadelphia to Cleveland and back, where Notley’s claustrophobic desert environs provided a centering influence. While I’ll always have a soft spot for the “dailiness” of her early New York School-inspired work, the hybrid novelistic forms she’s developed over the last few decades are quite formidable, and in Culture of One they culminate in a work of great empathy and distance, guided by a sharp sociological eye. It’s poetry that’s draws upon every instant of Notley’s tumultuous life; a book that rips your heart out and comforts you at the same time.

John Cage | Silence | M.I.T. | 1961 and A Year from Monday | Wesleyan | 1967
Kyle Gann | No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” | Yale | 2010

This past fall, I was grateful to have a number of very talented students from our College-Conservatory of Music in my contemporary world poetry class, and while they were enthusiastic to talk about Kate Lilley, Mónica de la Torre, Christian Bök and John Tranter, our conversations, both in class and afterwards, would often drift to contemporary composers, conceptual artists and pop music. Cage was a particularly important figure to them—as he was when I first discovered him as an undergrad—and their enthusiasm sent me back for deeper reading, first to Kyle Gann’s recent book on Cage’s most infamous work and then into the writings themselves. It’s somewhat disorienting to re-immerse yourself in work so central to your aesthetic development, that feels as if it’s written in your bones, and Cage’s disarmingly friendly voice, his Zen-poetic phrasings, his fragmented constructions that invite you to start and stop freely, all serve to heighten this sensation. Judging from the testimony of a great many poets (Ashbery, Bernstein and Berrigan all jump to mind), the “Cage-phase” is a fundamental moment for the young artist, and I couldn’t be happier that my students’ experience gave me the opportunity to reconnect with it and reorient my critical perspective.

CAConrad, ed. | Jupiter88 | http://jupiter88poetry.blogspot.com | 2011

CAConrad’s cinéma vérité “video journal of contemporary poetry” has had an auspicious first eight months, showcasing an astounding array of poets in its fifty-five installments, along with another thirty-one video tributes to Allen Ginsberg curated for this year’s Howl Festival. The common factor uniting these authors is their friendship with Conrad himself—recently hailed by Ron Silliman as “Philly poetry’s modern day Ben Franklin”—and the various episodes are filmed either when these poets visit Philadelphia or when Conrad travels outside of his hometown. Jupiter 88 is a testament to the power of coterie fostered by technology, or better still, technology fostered by coterie: though our viewing experience is nonetheless vicarious and mediated, it’s also an intimate one, bolstered by the host’s affinity for his guests, the brief glimpses of their private spaces and the personalized touches, including the strange props that frequently dominate the frame. Moreover, Jupiter 88’s creative use of technology at the disposal of many (a webcam, Facebook used as a media host, Blogger used as a homepage) not only serves as an idiosyncratic document of a thriving period in contemporary poetics, but also welcomes the remote viewer into that discourse.

Claudia Rankine | Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric | Graywolf | 2004

In last year’s Attention Span list, I praised Maggie Nelson’s Bluets as “a breathtakingly ambitious work that crosses genres and disciplines as it explores its enigmatically ambiguous topic,” and this year I’m glad to have found another book that accomplishes all this and more. While Nelson maintains an essential continuity throughout her diverse investigations, Rankine dwells in the possibilities of fragmentation, allowing the swiftly-scattered subject matter to thread emotional connections at its own leisurely pace. Moreover, while both authors lull readers into a welcome intimacy with the author and take risks in terms of form, Rankine’s metatextual wizardry (including copious illustrations, David Foster Wallace-esque endnotes and found intertexts) achieves the startling effect of placing readers inside and outside of the book simultaneously. Reading Don’t Let Me Be Lonely at a peaceful seaside retreat in North Carolina, I experienced a further distancing from the deeply-felt litany of violence contained therein (the Oklahoma City Bombing, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and most saliently, September 11th), and was moved to feel lost time and pain return with such great immediacy.

CANADA (Luis Cerveró, Nicolás Méndez & Lope Serrano) | various music videos, shorts, commercials, etc. | http://www.lawebdecanada.com | 2008-present

Like many people, I first encountered this Barcelona-based directors collective last fall through their unforgettable video for El Guincho’s “Bombay”: a dizzying, rapid-fire montage of cinema and sex, evoking Man Ray, Réne Magritte, Erwin Wurm, Michel Gondry, b-movies, and much, much more. Other stunning clips followed (for Scissor Sisters’ “Invisible Light,” Two Door Cinema Club’s “What You Know” and most recently, Battles’ “Ice Cream”) and browsing through their website I was surprised to find an expansive archive of films of all sorts—shorts, screen tests, ads, television bumpers, etc.—underscoring CANADA’s ambitious mission of “creative excellence in projects in a variety of areas: advertising, fashion, music videos, TV and cultural events.” Though the quick and sunny collage style’s emerged as the group’s hallmark, they can also produce gorgeous results from simpler and quieter concepts, and while I experience the same giddy joy as watching a younger generation of music video auteurs (Gondry, Spike Jonze, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer, Anton Corbijn) come into their own, this feels different. Instead of biding their time with music videos until the movie studios come calling, CANADA’s work, though steeped in cinema history, seems perfectly conceived for the 21st century—attention-grabbing art for art’s sake that courts short attention spans and revels in the possibilities of microforms.

Lorine Niedecker | Collected Works | California | 2002

The somewhat accidental launch of PennSound’s Lorine Niedecker author page this past winter—thanks to the intervention of Marcella Durand and Eric Baus (the full story’s here)—sent me back to Jenny Penberthy’s marvelous Collected Works to reconnect. I made my way through her poetic output over the course of a long Megabus ride to Chicago, moved not only by its great variety, but also its continuities: the Objectivist observational minimalisms that lay dormant through her neglected middle years only to flourish again in her marvelous final poems. It’s further testament to Niedecker’s tragic circumstances that there’s so little audio of her, and yet I’m grateful that we have Cid Corman’s brief recording of Harpsichord & Salt Fish poems to present to our listeners.

Charles Bernstein | Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions | Chicago | 2011

Our new decade’s brought with it not only a career-spanning Bernstein retrospective (All the Whiskey in Heaven) but also a new volume of critical work: the long-overdue Attack of the Difficult Poems, his first collection of this sort since 1999’s My Way: Speeches and Poems. Rereading old favorites (“Against National Poetry Month as Such,” “Poetry Bailout Will Restore Confidence of Readers,” “Recantorium [a bachelor machine, after Duchamp after Kafka]”) and discovering hidden gems (“Electronic Pies in the Poetry Skies,” “Making Audio Visible: Poetry’s Coming Digital Presence”), what I’m most struck by is poetry’s rapid techno-cultural evolution, from late-90s days of Usenet, listservs and America Online to our current “wreaderly” quasi-utopia, where open source venues like PennSound, Jacket2, the Electronic Poetry Center, UbuWeb, Eclipse, the aforementioned Jupiter88 and scores more make work available to ever-widening audiences. Conversely, while it’s heartening to realize how far we’ve come, Bernstein’s still-incisive criticism reminds us how this process has only served to widen the chasm between poetry’s progressive wing and “official verse culture.” After so much worthwhile looking backwards in these recent volumes, what I most want is a collection of the new poems that have accumulated in the five years since Girly Man.

Yoko Ono | Grapefruit: a Book of Instructions and Drawings | Simon & Schuster | 1970 Yoko Ono | Onobox | Rykodisc | 1992

Yoko Ono’s work always occupied a respectful, if peripheral, place in my mind. Certainly, I thought her contributions to Double Fantasy were better than John Lennon’s, and happily scorned those making cheap jokes at her expense; however I never really had the chance to immerse myself in her work until this past year. Grapefruit was fascinating, largely for the ways in which its event pieces firmly root her in, yet subvert Fluxus tradition (Ono can be, at times, more whimsical, more poetic, or more emotionally attuned than, say, George Brecht), but also for the way in which its texts served as raw materials for her diverse musical pursuits. While Onobox showcases plenty of what folks might stereotypically expect—namely, challenging avant-garde voice pieces and sound collages—that’s finished after one disc, and the remaining five sides are filled with ridiculously good stuff that even pedestrian listeners couldn’t find fault with: uncompromising feminist anthems, wry social observations, solid grooves, haunting ballads, blistering rockers, New Wave experimentation, and much more. We made a two-disc distillation of the best bits for the car and listened to it nonstop through the new year’s bleak opening months, happily singing along with each track.

Keith Haring: 1978-1982 | Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati | 2011

I’ve loved Haring’s work ever since I was a child and yet in all my years of museum-going, I don’t recall ever seeing his work in person, so you can imagine my delight in discovering that a newly-curated show focusing on the artist’s formative years was debuting downtown at the CAC. To be honest, it’s a somewhat imperfect show, ending just as Haring hit his stride, but the absence of work from his primetime years and his poignant final output is more than made up for by the sheer density of materials archived here—plenty of paintings, but also flyers, video works, sketchbooks, diaries, slideshows and all sorts of other ephemera. What impressed me most was the opportunity to interact with these ancillary artifacts, tracing lines of influence (most notably the Burroughs/Gysin cut-up method) and seeing how Haring’s multifarious student interests were honed into an idiosyncratic style.

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More Michael S. Hennessey here.

Hennessey’s Attention Span for 20102009. Back to 2011 directory.

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