Poetry Wars Revived

Bucky Fuller at BMC Building a Geodesic Dome

Most of the LANGPO vs. Black Mountain poetry war was fought before I was invested in poetry, so I have done my best to catch up, but a recrudescence has emerged thanks to Dispatches, a website dedicated to poetry and connected to people who made the Resist Much/Obey Little anthology happen. (Disclaimer: They published one of my poems in that book.)

And here is the beginning of the post which warmed up the feud again:

It was interesting to watch the dialog on a recent Facebook post, with one of the primary combatants from that 1978 event making fun of the other’s penchant for myth and crystals and then deleting his comments! An M.O. quite like the one that would prevent release of such an audio clip, even 39 years after the fact. Just past the segment copied and pasted in above, the Dispatches post refers to LANGPO as: “i.e. materialist, neo-Marxist inflected formalism…” which I think sums it up well. This take is similar to Ammiel Alcalay’s comments in his excellent book on Charles Olson A Little History:

While “deconstruction” has been the reigning theoretical rage in academia, driven by fantasies of rendering Western culture powerless through critical discourse, projects characterized by construction, reconstruction, and historical recuperation provide people with real political footing.

In that book Alcalay has a wealth of insight into Charles Olson and projectivism in general and it’s been my feeling for a couple of decades now that there is so much with this stance toward poem making that can be done. We’ve only scratched the surface. Now is a good time for more experiments with projectivism given we’re witnessing the last gasps of LANGPO and its step-child Conceptual poetry, which killed itself rather well at Brown University over two years ago. Of course, there are probably a lot of poets quietly working on “multi-decade research projects” or “saturation jobs” as Olson called them. Perhaps we’ll see their emergence.

I went with an open mind a couple of years ago to see another LANGUAGE poet read at a local university. Charles Bernstein was reading in support of his book “All the Whiskey in Heaven” a 30 year retrospective of his work. And he read that afternoon chronologically, with great wit and humor. I especially enjoyed his sound poetry, which sounded slightly German as I recall. I also noticed his eye contact. In the first half of the reading, he was looking up over the heads of the gathered as he paused between stanzas. It was only in the second half, in which the material shifted to poignant poems about his daughter, who died from a suicide, that his eye contact was with actual eyes of the gathered students and other attendees. This was very touching material and I thought it unusual for such emotional content to be coming from a LANGUAGE poet. But the form that was used to convey this material was very conventional, formal verse. I imagine now that “Official Verse Culture” (a Bernstein term regarding the poetry powers-that-be, grant-givers, publishers &c.) is fully in the free verse mode (and not open form, but usually prose chopped up into line breaks), writing formal poetry can be seen as renegade? (Avant? Post-Avant? Post-Post-Avant? PostToasties?) It seemed to me a pity though that writing from powerful emotional states, for which Projective Verse is well-suited, and the more human approach with eye contact, was relegated to formal verse as if that was the only way the poet knew how to render such material, having decided against developing a projective praxis over the years.

Yes, it is a risk to relate actual feelings, deep emotional vulnerabilities, in one’s poetry. How can we do it with intelligence, originality and innovation? Questions like these were abandoned by LANGPO and Conceptual Poetry, but it is clear with the breakdown of capitalism, the climate and the U.S. democracy that poetry should endeavor to be a little more than a disembodied academic parlor game. Perhaps the release of the 1978 Duncan vs. Watten audio will shed some light on how the wrong turn was made in North American poetry.

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Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation

Is it Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation? Can you tell the difference? Is close reading dead? The issue of cultural appropriation has flared up in the last ten days or so thanks to The Writer’s Union of Canada and syndicated conservative columnist George Will. How many times are THOSE two paired? Bear with me.

From the CBC:


The Writers’ Union of Canada apologized Wednesday for an opinion article in the latest issue of its quarterly magazine advocating for more cultural appropriation in Canadian literature. In the article, novelist and Write magazine editor Hal Niedzviecki writes that he doesn’t “believe in cultural appropriation.” He goes on to say he thinks “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” and suggests there should be an Appropriation Prize in literature. According to the Oxford Reference website, cultural appropriation involves “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.”

Keep in mind this edition of “Write” from TWUC featured – Indigenous Writers! You can imagine that such included writers saw this act, rightly so, as a betrayal. And in The National Post, Niedzviecki elaborated on the “Appropriation Prize”:

Q: People took issue with the suggestion that there should be a cultural appropriation prize. Was that satirical?

A: It was Swiftian. I don’t know if you could say satirical exactly. But the intention is to push some buttons a bit … We have a lot of book prizes. There are book prizes for just about everything now. I was poking a little bit of fun at the number of book prizes out there, and saying why don’t we just have an appropriation prize as well? It was that context… Absolutely not meant at all to be taken seriously or to be insulting… It becomes this whole thing of, when am I allowed to write what and from what perspective? As Lionel Shriver said, in the end you can only write memoir. That’s all you can write? That to me is very limiting.

Then comes George Will in the Washington Post on the subject, with:

The hysteria du jour, on campuses and elsewhere, against “appropriation” illustrates progressivism’s descent into authoritarianism leavened by philistinism. This “preening silliness” — the phrase is from the Federalist’s David Marcus — is by people oblivious to the fact that, as Marcus says, “culture blending is central to the development of, well, everything. Indignation about appropriation is a new frontier in the ever-expanding empire of cultivated victimhood: “Marginalized” persons from a particular culture supposedly are somehow wounded when “privileged” people — those who are unvictimized or less victimized — express or even just enjoy the culture of more pure victims without their permission. The wearing of sombreros at tequila-themed parties triggered — to speak the language of the exquisitely sensitive — the anti-appropriation constabulary at Bowdoin College. Oberlin College’s palate police denounced as “appropriative” an allegedly inauthentic preparation of General Tso’s chicken. Such nonsense is harmless — until it morphs into attempts to regulate something serious, like writing fiction: Do not write about cultures other than your own.

Which reminds me of three things:

1) George Will went to his wheelhouse for an example, the USAmerican 1950s;
2) Sam Hamill posted (or re-posted) on Facebook, this:

and 3) My own experience of being accused of writing about something of which I had no right to do. When I won the Robin Blaser Award by the Capilano Review, the announcement of it was given as sort of an afterthought by the blogger whose job it was to tell the news, so it came out:

Following “a portrait of thinking” and a story by Sheila is a poem by Paul Nelson, whom Thea’s father has chosen as this year’s recipient of the Robin Blaser Award. The title of the poem, “The Day the Weather Decided to Die”, is parenthetically subtitled “(After a Haida tale told by Robert Bringhurst)”, which sets off bells given the controversy over Bringhurst’s right to tell these tales, but also the form he tells them in, which is poetry, not prose. As Haida scholar John Enrico has argued, these (oral) tales belong in paragraphic prose form, not as Western poems. And while I, like many others, agree that Bringhurst has made something pretty with these poems, I appreciate Enrico’s point, for it too carries the title of a play.

Never mind the form in question was a Haibun and, as such, was not a typical – left-margin-justified – “western” poem, no. That is not as important as someone deciding what other people should write, ESPECIALLY when it is done with reverence, as I believe my poem is. It, like all the other Haibun in that series of 99 is made up of dense prose paragraphs with a “haiku-like” poem in the middle or the end. (I guess I get a pass for “appropriating” haiku!)

Never mind I’ve interviewed Indigenous leaders like Russell Means, Beaver Chief (who also served on the SPLAB Board), Cheryl Seidner, Richard Atleo, Jewell James, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and others. Never mind I created a place for Beaver Chief to hold a Sacred Circle for a couple of years in the Coastal Salish tradition and learned many sacred Shaker songs, or that I ran several of my poems which include Lummi cosmology by legendary storyteller Johnny Moses who said they were: “brutal, honest and a true telling” of what had happened. Never mind I earn about 1/2 the median income in King County and continue to write and present poetry events. There is a righteousness to many people, mostly NOT indigenous, when this issue comes up. There also is a little truth to what each person is saying.

Should we write ONLY from our own culture or experience? It seems to me we need the opposite right now. We need to support creative people and free expression. Back to Niedzviecki, he suggests a writer writing from something other than their own cultural background ask these questions: “…are you doing it thoughtfully? Are you doing it for the right reasons? Only you know that. Only the author knows that. And only the audience is ultimately able to judge that.”

I have used Indigenous stories in A Time Before Slaughter because they are the last stories that come out of a deep connection to the land and may awaken something in the settlers and their descendants that could help save the biosphere and this place which I have come to love since moving here in 1988. They have tremendous energy, surprise mind and an openness that is rare in non-Aboriginal culture. They are often funny. It is material that deserves a wider audience and maybe someone reading my book might go to the texts I used as sources to dig deeper. When I was a teenager just getting into Jazz, it was Jeff Beck covering Charles Mingus that made me aware of Mingus, so Jeff Back was kind of a bridge. We need more bridges. Like the Kentucky native (Greg Watson) who helped re-publish the Indigenous tales collected from Muckleshoot People by settler Arthur Ballard. When I met Vi Hilbert she told me Greg Watson was her “best student.” Good thing he was interested in a culture other than his own, like Arthur Ballard. We are the richer for it.

So to take a form like the Haibun (from Japan) and use a neo-barroco writing style (pioneered in Latin America) using epigraphs from Spain’s Ramón Gómez de la Serna (who also lived in Buenos Aires) to write about events happening here, in a bioregion known by some as Cascadia, seems pretty original and in the spirit of cultural appreciation not unlike the fusion of Jeff Beck or the fusion of contemporary chefs who create things like Kimchi Pierogies. Bon appétit!

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Neukom Vivarium Variations

It is part public art sculpture, part environmental education project. Unlike any other art project one can imagine, the Neukom Vivarium in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park is a nurse log decomposing in a very public setting.

Your humble narrator visited the Neukom Vivrium on consecutive Saturdays in late winter 2017 to bathe himself in the atmosphere created by artist Mark Dion, and installed in 2007. From those sessions has come the poem Neukom Vivarium Variations, from which an excerpt is featured below. The poem will be debuted at the Easyspeak Seattle reading series and other literary venues in the next few months and a publisher of a chap book is being sought.

Bryan King is Headworks Operations Manager for Tacoma Water, the public entity that provides drinking water for the City of Destiny. He was instrumental in the Neukom Vivarium project. On April 4, 2017, we caught up with him to discuss how a log from near the Howard Hansen Dam ended up being chosen to be the Nurse Log for the Neukom Vivarium, or as Bryan puts it “The art log.”

Paul Nelson with Bryan King

Segment 1 – The sincerity and care with which the “art log” was sought and removed from the intake area of the City of Tacoma’s Green River water supply. Listen to Part 1 – 7:14.

Segment 2 – He compared Tacoma’s management of their watershed with Seattle’s Cedar River watershed management. Listen to Part 2 – 7:59.

The following photos of the Nurse Log’s removal from near Howard Hansen Dam were provided by Bryan King:

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