Wednesday, February 29, 2012

39 Poems, One Heart

‘39 Poems, One Heart’ by Charles Butler (No Shirt Press, Brooklyn)

There is an unmistakable presence in the poetry of Charles Butler. His long notebook-entry styled works are at once meditative monologue and the very public display of a persona deeply engaged in examining his relationship with the world around him.

In his new collection ‘39 Poems, One Heart’ (No Shirt Press, Brooklyn),  that presence crosses into many territories.

Frank O’Hara could take a walk on his lunch break and come back with an observationally acute poem. When Charles Butler takes a walk, he does so in 39 directions, we are compelled to take that walk along with him.

Butler has a knack for changing direction -- a poem’s mood and perspective can turn on a dime. This serves less as an evasive move or a theatrical device than it does to keep the reader alert and attentive in the hushed contemplations he offers up.

He’s infrequently overt in his politics, though when he does bear witness, Butler goes for the jugular. 

He possesses a philosophical complexity akin to Kerouac‘s, in Scripture of the Golden Eternity, who urges us to see that ‘the word’ and ‘the thing itself’ are irrevocably intertwined, Similarly, Butler strives to come grips not just with friends, foes, lovers and the challenges of a relentlessly urbanized environment -- and not just with the emptiness at the heart of it all -- but with the words which are meant to represent both the relentless surface of the world and the emptiness within.

But above all this, Butler is a fully embedded human being. The sense of loneliness, limitations, and yet accommodation to the embedded condition of the life experience is palpable -- and his communication of that sense understated and adroit.

I’m in the center/four people/a man and a woman/a woman/and a woman he writes in ‘love tween.’

           a want and a need
          great link ‘tween them
            very much
    in the center
into my own love affair

with these words

An instinctively wise cadence is his among the most important attributes which draw the reader’s attention to his art. That and an effective conveyance of meditative pace, coaxing the reader to move through his poems at a considered pace.

Butler's careful attention to line breaks and frequent use of staggered lines compels the reader to pause along with him. We turn ideas around in the meditative stillness much as the author does in his first utterance of them.

only two rules in his life
he has kept
           trust no one                    
       to be alone
       a new day
                           a new year
change     washes over him

What results is a shared gestation, a mutually achieved pregnant deliberation, which clinches the deal, turns what might have otherwise been an acceptable but unremarkable performance piece into a memorable experience.

Hush. Lull. Negative space.

How a reader takes these devices is in some measure a reflection of the reader’s own disposition. What is attributable as the author’s own achievement is his dedication to working those devices to maximum effect. His willingness to allow his reader to share ‘the moment always…the moment.’

Charles Butler creates aperture. He invites people in -- and there‘s much in that for which a reader might be grateful. It’s a sign of trust, respect, and quiet confidence in the value of his contemplations.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tomorrow Is Another Song

Tomorrow Is Another Song, Scott Wannberg (Perceval Press, 2011)

I'm anticipating a visit from Brendan Constantine next week -- a fine poet from the LA Basin who will be reading in the NY area, and hopefully carrying with him some personal reminiscences of his experiences with the late Scott Wannberg . Brendan's visit has brought to mind this review I did of Scott's posthumous publication, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER SONG, a few months ago.

This book is a great introduction, albeit a wistful one, to a beloved figure among a crew of hip/outlaw LA poets who made a big splash on the Venice Beach Bohemian scene. Great because it represents the inimitable Scott Wannberg writing full stride. Wistful because for those who never got to hear the man live, it's too late to actually meet this veritable 'force of nature' face to face.

The original Venice Beach Beat scene, while not as central to the vortices of 50s and 60s bohemianism as the SF-NY poles, included some luminous writing and powerful writers -- and was an important amalgamation between bohemianism and the LA/Hollywood scene.

In more recent times it has been responsible for a whole lot more -- including the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.  

Wannberg's own origins on the scene seem to have derived early on from his position in a bookstore in the Brentwood section of LA, where his accretion of pop and literary culture became a touchstone to both alternative and Bohemian types. Later, it was his larger than life, voluble participation in activities with the Carma Bums that established his reputation.  

Ill health in recent years forced a kind of semi-retirement to Florence Oregon, but did not reduce his iconic presence. He continued to disseminate his work, prolifically -- notably through social media, where his posting of multiple poems on a daily basis was testament to his continuing powers as a hip/dada spokesperson for the politics of progressivism and alternative culture, Southern California style.  

Wannberg's poetry was that of the disjunctive present, masking social and political criticism in a melange of pop cultural metaphor, fast talking wordplay, idiosyncratic mythmaking. A kind of panning in the shallow stream of pop culture for jokes and reference points which often enough transcends mixed metaphor to turn up gold nuggets.  

His targets were standard enough -- American militarism, Wall Street greed, economic injustice, bourgeois superficiality, intolerance and the like. The plasticity of tinsel town both amused and repelled him. The potential for a rebirth of wonder was never far from his free-wheeling, iconoclastic, bubble-bursting glee.  

He spoke in code sometimes, and his syntax was not always clear enough to tell in whose voice he was placing various utterances -- his own, that of a protagonist, or that of the many targets of his incisive satirical barbs. But he spoke convincingly, entertainingly and prolifically.  

This book reveals Wannberg in full voice, provocative to the very end. It also reveals on close reading what is arguably a parting shot of sorts at po-biz -- and in particular, the lamentable presence of careerism, egoism, superficiality, sycophancy, and various manifestations of clique behavior among the overinflated and ego-filled.  

Consider "Please Remove Your Brain In The Presence Of...," a scene of rank superficiality among performers wrangling for attention while dissolving into sameness, a crew of people whose success is losing steam, and anyhow 'overrated/their managers had done too well with the press clippings.'  

"Pretty People's Paranoid Party" carries this message along. There is a cadre of pretty people making noise in Wannberg's carport, ironically enough about being afraid of noisy people. Wannberg runs out and throws a phone book at them, saying 'here's your way out, now shut up and let me chill out.' Of course he's no better off -- a group of ugly people replace them, and their talk is so quiet 'it's downright eerie.' Sycophants or glamerati, that carport, Wannberg laments, just has something about it 'that attracts all kinds.'  

The poet remains cagy in his metaphorical masking of individual targets. But as the poems accrete, it's clear that he's got a scene and a set of personality types in mind. In "Hard Road Claims You Gave It The Cold Shoulder" Wannberg takes on an unnamed 'noted poet,' who pulls out his hair and yells for someone to 'make me quotable.' An army of people begin to recite his work, gutting one another 'in the name/of a higher/love.'  

In several poems he expresses a kind of self-alienation, at least from his public persona. In "Thar She Blows" he portrays himself as a kind of Moby Dick, objectified and turned into a kind of tourist attraction for younger boho-wannabes -- when all he really wants to do is enjoy his final days with as much dignity and simplicity as possible.  

In "No Heart Attacks at Testimonial Landing," he describes being outside of the limelight, looking in at former buddies. 'Surely everyone knows you by now,' he writes. 'They have marathons and telethons in our honor. When the dog brings in the paper I see your face on page one....I know you are at Testimonial Landing/working on your acceptance speech.' Even though he doesn't really understand the purpose of what is going to happen at the event, he wishes to go -- but his own ill health keeps him from being able to be part of it.

At Testimonial Landing there is a sign that before you cross the bridge that says 'no heart attacks need apply,' and besides, he keeps getting splinters in his feet when he tries to cross that bridge.  I should get some shoes soon enough and then I can come over and see just what the hell is going on in your life.  

And in "Devil Had Nothing To Do With It...I Did It All By Myself," Wannberg challenges the assertions of innocence of a person who 'can handle all the publicity... all me Iago, Mr Othello," he says. 'Let me walk at your side...the diapers of the rising famous are covered in blood... We'll leave scars in the thighs of the country.' 

Though he accepts his own role, Wannberg places fault squarely on the shoulders of his media-savvy target. 'Quit telling me the Devil made you do it," he says. "I saw you use both of your hands.'  

The author offers an apology for his own culpability, in "Maniac In The Engine." There's a force, he declares 'that wants so very hard to love you' but which causes a poet to become a manic strong man, to 'talk so musical you can't do anything but give in" and to swear that his 'magic is holy.' To the extent the portrait is of Wannberg, he offers a caveat by expressing what his initial intentions were to express a kind of innocent wonder, not to dominate. 'I came over to your private war to borrow a cup of sugar...I just wanted to read the book of your eyes. I just wanted to ask you your name.'

In the end, Wannberg offers an alternative figure as a model of West Coast literary legitimacy -- Raymond Carver.

Carver, an Oregon poet whose hard-boiled film noir characters bear a striking counterpoint to the more cynical Southern California Bukowski, is portrayed in 'Raymond Carver Two Step' as ultimately generous, gentle and living in 'real earth.'  

His fingers danced on the skin of stars. His people wanted their shot at song, even if their mouths were numb. He gave them a dance floor, even when they felt they had run out. He gave them longitude and faces. He gave them latitude and skin. He simply gave.  

For all his derisive satire, Wannberg reveals his true gentle self and sense of acceptance, in the finely tempered "There's Going to be Room Enough."  

'There's this room with your name on it/at the end of some road...waiting for you to call it home/there's going to be more than enough room for you in it,' he writes. That room will accept the person in question, regardless of his imperfections or faults. 'Doesn't matter if you feel you can't be loved. This room is going to let you in it/even if the key breaks in the lock...This room goes by many names but truly responds to only one. it's the one name your heart paints it. I know you told your biographers that your heart was incapable of flying. This morning I saw it somersaulting in the sky.  

Tomorrow is Another Song is a gift and a promise -- a prescription -- from Scott Wannberg to us all, presumptive or small. In his fabulous manner, he reminds us that there is a hero and a villain in all of us, a sad, ridiculous but loveable character to be laughed at and loved and corrected…and ultimately, accepted.  

If we can do this, Scott Wannberg offers, we can be true to our own hearts. If we can do this, we can find our way to the room with our name on it.  

If we can do this, we can turn our own cartwheels in the sky.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

'All The Lands Of The Earth Make Contributions Here'

At Battery Park in lower Manhattan, where tourists come from around the world in good weather or bad to catch the ferry to Liberty Island, there’s an immigrant statue created by sculptor Luis Sanguino in 1973 which consistently attracts the attention of small groups of tourists as they debark from the tour.

It's an odd assortment of folk rushing out of the hold of a ship, like the animals from Noah’s ark, released from their confinement, greeting the New World which has beckoned them.

There’s a European couple clutching a small child. There’s a Semitic man bending forward and holding his hands out to the soil in reverential supplication. Another figure in some sort of Pharaonic headdress and robes peers up at Manhattan’s ’tall façades of marble and iron,’ clutching a briefcase in one hand with fierce pride of fulfillment, the other hand held to his heart.

And there’s an African who rises up powerfully from his knees, holding links of broken chains in his upraised hands. Unlike the others, he’s looking not out onto the new land, but up at some private and significant heaven.

More than a study in multicultural correctness or the ‘mob’ anonymity of Emma  Lazarus’ huddled masses, the statue's figures have great specificity about them. And seriousness. There’s no easy joy or laughter in Sanguino’s figures, but there’s plenty of intensity. Each has the face of one in the middle of a deeply personal and transformative moment. Each has been borne out of the trauma of their past, and is now confronted with the monumental challenge and opportunity of the land in which they find themselves.

I sat in the park yesterday watching as the tourists, debarking in small groups from a very different sort of ship, slowed to a halt in front of Sanguino's sculpture.

One by one, someone from the group would go sit on a pylon which is part of the sculpted scene, and pose for a picture. Sometimes they would just look directly at the camera and smile their camera smile. But more often than not, they adopted the pose of one of the figures in the sculpture.

Supplication. Reverence. Exhaustion. Resurrection. Defiant Pride.

But one by one, before the camera could click, they broke into an irrepressible smile, or a self-conscious laugh. Try as they might, none of them could hold the pose.

They were having fun. They were in New York City -- they'd come to plug into the powerful joy of America’s great diverse city. There was just too much straightforward joy in the moment for them to recapitulate pain.

These days, as descendants of immigrants are possessed of a schizoid national mindset that both welcomes the world to our shores, and reviles it, the Immigrant Statue, and the response I witnessed to it, is instructive.

‘Give me your tired your poor,’ the Statue of Liberty intones, Emma Lazarus’ words carved into the stone during a very different era, when burgeoning industrialization of the nation demanded cheap labor to fill the factories. Yet we hold those words to be sacred to our national vision.

“All races are here;  All the lands of the earth make contributions here”
wrote Walt Whitman, in City of Ships, in 1865.

"We gotta go and never stop going til we get there," wrote Jack Kerouac in a different era and in different city, reflecting on the lure of America's great diverse urban engine, On The Road.

Walt praised that diversity in urban America,100 years before Jack pounded the keys of his typewriter, and twenty years before Emma lifted her pen. “Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!…I have rejected nothing you offer’d me—whom you adopted, I have adopted;  Good or bad, I never question you—I love all—I do not condemn anything;  I chant and celebrate all that is yours.”

These words -- memorialized in the railings outside the World Financial Center’s Winter Gardens -- is an elegant statement of an America ideal...inclusion.

147 years since old Walt uttered it, we're still trying to learn its lesson. And we're still confronting a lesson found in something missing from the quote -- Whitman’s fighting side. ‘Peace I chanted peace,' wrote Whitman, 'but now the drum of war is mine.’

This missing piece of the poem is significant. In at least one sense, Whitman wrote City Ships as a way to confront the idea that, in order to preserve the ideals of our American union, it may be necessary to take up the struggle against those who would attempt to derail them.

This American union, Whitman reminds us, is a nation wondrously comprised of diverse states, and even more diverse peoples -- our common humanity, our belief in the inherent unity contained in diversity.

That ideal’s among the finest expressions of our individual and corporate personhood to be found in the cosmos. And best celebrated not just in marble or stone or in the railings of the Winter Garden, but through its enactment.

And as Whitman reminds us, worthy of protection when it is attacked.

As xenophobia and revulsion of ‘the other’ is once again used blatantly to bait the fears of an economically stressed people; as anti-immigration hysteria seeks to find its home in our national discourse through code language not much different from the “Americanism“ talk of the Ku Klux Klan 1920s; it is vital for us to hold precious the deeper American ideal of inclusion.

By memorializing it. By protecting it. And by celebrating it, proud, passionate, mettlesome and mad though it may be, and despite the failings of our fellow man.

Like Whitman did, because all the lands of the earth make contributions here.

Like Kerouac did, because 'something will come of it yet...there's always more, a little further -- it never ends.'

And like the tourists do -- by hopping onto the statue of the Immigrant Statue and cracking a defiant grin.

I bet Walt would’ve done that.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

THE ADAPTIVE EYE: filmic adaptation of poetry

For any number of years now there have been attempts in this country to free poetry from the dull prison of classroom textbooks and ‘talking head’ recitations by the titular hears of American poetry.

Back in the fifties, it was Beat poets jamming with jazz combos. From the eighties on, underground Hip Hop, Rap and Slam scenes have attracted wide populist audiences.

And importantly, a network of Spoken Word performance scenes has grown into a continent-wide ‘democratic vista’ of cafes, bars, clubs, libraries, church basements and other ‘below the radar’ venues. Right beneath the elevated noses of the nation’s poetry elite, who typically do not deign to participate in something so far beneath their status and position.

There've been a forays into mass media too -- most recently the emergence in the past decade of programming like the Def Poetry Jam, but going back to the “Radio-Modernist“ David Burliuk, who saw the possibilities of a future in which ‘The voice of a song sung in Chicago may be heard in Australia and in the Steppes of Russia.’

But for the most part, fiction writers and musicians have taken advantage of developments in radio, film and television. We the poets have basically missed the boat.

It’s in this context that I received with enthusiasm what turned out to be a stunning ‘film-poem’ by poet Robert Peake, a lovely rendering of his poem Snow Den which he filmed after a snowfall outside London a few weeks ago. ( “You must become a student of winter, carry/a dagger of ice near the heart” intones Peake, as the film’s invisible narrator, as images of English woodlands emerge one by one. “Only then/will you see where the snow dens are made/to wait out the blue world in darkness.”

Peake's visual treatment, supported with a background soundtrack of hauntingly beautiful  5th century plainsong, results in a near perfectly product.

These days I'm involved in a similar project here in New York. After brainstorming with transplanted Australian Neon Animator Jack Feldstein and hashing it out with the editors of the Smalls Jazz Café poetry anthology “Token Entry: Poems of the NYC Subway,“ we’ve pulled together a Subway Film Series, pairing some of New York’ freshest filmmaking talent with poems from the anthology. (

For those of you in town, this series of six short films is set to debut March 4th, 4 p.m, in Jackson Heights Queens at the Queens Film Festival.

I’m very excited by what I’ve seen. The filmmakers’ treatment of the poems runs the gamut -- from attempts to straightforwardly 'match' the subject matter in a poem to more free-handed creations that complement, enhance and interact with portions of the text or the full text itself.

In some cases the partnership amounts to use of a part of text as a significant interwoven dialogue with other elements. In some cases, there is a deconstructed partnership, more cubist and experimental in feel.

And in at least one of the short films, the originating poem serves as an epigraphic springboard to a fully realized and freestanding film.

Most importantly, in every case the filmmaker has dared to escape the leash of simple video documentation of a recitation, and has produced a film that is its own artifact.

This is not to diminish the value of having the video access to contemporary poets’ work which we have today through Youtube and other media. There’s plenty of that stuff going around. But to me, too much of what may be found is painfully under produced and uninteresting -- little more than a poet with a microphone in his or her face, standing rigidly behind a podium while a single camera rolls.

In my view, the internet age affords us a chance to do so much more, to produce works that help bring poetry back to 'the people,' and in a format peculiarly suited to our art.

Will we take that chance?

Tastefully taking advantage of the opportunities of film-- the way Robert Peake has, the way the filmmakers in the Subway Film Series have done -- can yield astonishingly fresh results. Groundbreaking results, that to my mind point the way to enormous possibilities and hope for the future vitality of poetry.

In this competitive and modern world of finely produced art and entertainment options, surely we can consider taking the leash off poetry, and let it run free a little.

Let the poetry elite, who derive the bulk of the tangible benefit from the way poetry is made available, dismiss the idea of poetry film. The rest of us, we the poets, have nothing to lose but our chains.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

TO BE NOBODY TOO -- Like Emily Dickinson

    “This world is the movie of what everything is, it is one movie, made of the same stuff throughout, belonging to nobody”
    Jack Kerouac, Sutra 10, Scripture of the Golden Eternity

    I caught a look at something rare, beautiful and hardly to be believed this week at Poets House on the Hudson River -- the handwriting of Emily Dickinson, the strange, reclusive 19th century genius/poet of Amherst Massachusetts.

    Emily’s distinctive voice has always been difficult for me to hear in the percolating fizz and bustle of Whitman’s Manhattan. Despite reading her work aloud in a crowded all-night marathon at the Bowery Club. Despite contemplating it alone in the flickering light of an all-night underground subway train.

    Til now that is.

    In fact I hadn't gone to the Poets House with any intent on learning anything much about old Emily. I was just killing an hour or so, waiting for an appearance by Andy Clausen at Kat George’s “Son Of A Pony” reading series at the Cornelia Street Café.

    There’s no killing time however. Just failed opportunities to recognize what is contained in every moment.

    So here’s a little sharing of a moment of recognition. Without hyperbole. Somehow, looking directly at the oddly striding handwriting of the Maid Of Amherst at the Poets House on Friday, I picked up its cadence, a palpable awareness of the silence of eternity that surrounded her as she wrote.

    To see her handwriting is to sense the breath of the woman. The long, open wonder of Dickinson’s hand. The emptiness surrounding each letter and vowel. How the tension between quietude and urgency reveals itself. Confronted with all that, for the first time I was ‘hooked and hypnotized’ -- like Dickinson biographer Jerome Charyn who claims to have been hooked ‘from the start’ and states that it was “the old maid of Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer.”

    “I’m nobody --  Who are you ---
    Are you nobody -- too --
    Then there’s a pair of us

    So writes Emily in her own sprawling hand -- a palpable inspiration and drawing in of eternity and air, as broad as the widest possible human breath.

    Don't tell! They'd advertise, you know.
    How dreary --to be -- Somebody!
    How public -- like a frog
    To tell one's name -- the livelong June --
    To an admiring Bog!

    Never got it before. I get it now.

    In a couple of dozen words, Dickinson solves the conundrum of being a poet in America -- to be ‘nobody, too.’ Part of a the communal 'thing,' which is temporal but vital and the 'eternal thing.' To eschew the egoism of fame or status, which we all know reduces many an aspiring ‘career’ poet to being little more than a croaking frog; and those who would try to fathom their work as a mere audience in a bog.

    I'm a firm believer in reading things said by people who are smarter than me. Like Greek philosopher Empedocles, who said “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” Like Jack Kerouac, whose ‘Scripture of the Golden Eternity,’ is rightly called a beautiful meditation on the nature of impermanence & consciousness.

    I was smelling flowers in the yard, and when I stood up I took a deep breath and the blood all rushed to my brain …writes Jack. I had apparently fainted, or died, for about sixty seconds. During that timeless moment of unconsciousness I saw the golden eternity. I saw heaven. In it nothing had ever happened, the events of a million years ago were just as phantom and ungraspable as the events of now, or the events of the next ten minutes. It was perfect, the golden solitude, the golden emptiness.

    Now there's an explanation that's ‘subtle as the dharma it invokes,’ as the Beat Museum‘s Jerry Cimino puts it. "Being nobody, the whole world belongs to us. Being nobody, we're here to disappear, therefore let's be as vivid & generous as we can."

    Or as Matthew Arnold asks rhetorically,  in his Hymn Of Empedocles, "Is it so small a thing /to have enjoy'd the sun?"

  Dickinson’s is no less a beautiful meditation. Read correctly, she urges us to be nobody too. Urges us to give up the terrible grasp of trying to be somebody, a vanity thrust on us by the ‘wheel of the quivering meat conception.’

     She urges us to embrace the beautiful nobody-hood of being an ordinary poet in America, and share it with the other ‘nobodies.’ To stop worrying so much about being 'circumference builders,' and pay attention to being the center of what we are.

    I left Poets House in a beautiful Dickensonian quietude, and looked out over the river, singing now along the edge of Manhattan with the same music and meaning of old Emily herself.

    Intimate as a shared horizon. Broad as the North American continent and what lies beyond. Rich as the pregnant silence of the Hudson’s lapping waters on busy Manhattan’s shore.