Tag Archives: poems
I’m in fantastic company – fellow aliens Richard Martin, Jake St. John, Jamey Jones, Lewis Warsh, Clark Coolidge, Buck Downs, Andrei Codrescu, Aram Saroyan, Tom Weigel, Brett Evans, Christopher Shipman, Chris Toll also donned swimsuits for the occasion.
Vive le Swoop, xJD!
Plus every now and then the clouds go all sublime—
Managed by Charles Bernstein at the University of Pennsylvania, PennSound lists hundreds of poets and contains thousands of sound files. You can listen to individual poems as well as full readings. The recordings are contemporary as well as historical. And the scope is international.
I’m honoured and pleased to become a part of PennSound’s collection with the addition of MP3s from my readings in Vancouver and Washington, DC. You can also click the image below to go directly to my PennSound page. I hope you enjoy these recordings and that you’ll revisit this incredible resource many times to explore its offerings.
Thanks to Sharon Margolis and Charles Bernstein for creating my page.
There’s a plethora of stunning poetic and visual work in this issue. Check out the table of contents. Thanks to Mark Young, publisher of Otoliths!
So in lieu of the mother-of-all-end-times-poems, I’m posting a sonnet for winter and a sonnet for spring, the flip sides of every moment of existence. Blessings and peace.
of snow, pocks
in tarnished snow.
Snow of lust.
Snow of cash.
travesty of dust.
vows of poverty
but not silence.
Snow of theft.
Spring’s blind surge awakens rambling epics. Evidence
gushes First things jockey for position. Feet sink
into mud, and revelation looms at the cost of sleep. Even
a car sounds different. The exotic bark of a dog shatters
Orion, spilling sand from a stunned hourglass.
Thereafter, molecules relax and history tries again:
A garlanded mother emerges playing a kithara
as her darlings weave a pedastal, the better to adore
the quixotic colorist: proof that sensory deprivation
binds minions to a redundant diety. Lids can’t filter
catastrophic light. Sap’s flight quickens, guiding
moments trickling toward a slack horizon. And again:
over the years weep scullions at their skinned rabbits.
Peddlers of risk lean into showers of delinquent buds.
A deserted city. We’ll have to imagine
it’s in a movie. Beneath a listless dome, walls
crumble into backlit dust. Flames on a hillside swarm,
tattered auburn fishes in the autumn wind. Glints of dying
light fall on unmoored mountains whose thoughts of home
come to nothing. Everywhere, flocks of matter dip pale snouts
into inky ponds. We’ll have to imagine someone watching
that movie. No one left to forget irrelevant seeds. Some left off
praying to the mother of a tarnished idol presiding over a flock
of angels, breath attended by golden lice. Others
paused long enough to view dusk’s leisurely descent
over the white noise of crashing surf. All found something
to swear by before it was too late. Photogenic dullards jazzed
in the waning light. A ship’s captain jingled his coins
before staving in the ship. Embers in a hearth
illuminated fish bones on plates.
Sonnets and Looms are available from the following vendors:
Glib spice announces the news bleeding
in the monochromatic distance. The short-term
memory of distance flees in fear. Enemies
fall, money flees. Falling gloom dazzles just
as history taught it to. Not the history of stars
made of tumbleweed nor the annals of a dust mote
singing rich disaster. Masoch was never so rich,
or so it seems to each geological layer. No
notebook records a pocket of posies between thick
layers of ash. It just is, caught in a small pocket
of time. “Time to return to star,” announces
tumbleweed on the news. The news shrinks
to a speck of pollen on a posy’s anther
in a pocket caught between thick layers of ash.
Sonnets and Looms are available here:
“There is such an expansiveness to Martin’s Looms. The poems exist in that magical place where words, images and ideas collide, creating connections that previously had never been.”
In his review, rob generously included a couple of poems from the book. If you’d like to read more from Looms, you can order a copy at the following vendors (click to link):
Poetry. The title of LOOMS signifies the weaving tool as well as the shadowing appearance of something. These “woven tales” were inspired by Barbara Guest’s statement that a tale “doesn’t tell the truth about itself; it tells us what it dreams about.” The strands of their surreal allegories converse, one idea giving rise to another, and the paths of their dialogue become the fabric of the narrative. In a second meaning, something that looms remains in a state of imminent arrival. Such are these tales, like parables with infinitely deferred lessons.
“In tightly woven tapestry, Martin’s ‘backstreet songs’ re-invent a music of knowledge that navigates the hucksterism and catastrophe threatening our planet. The movement of her threads is fugue-like, punctuated by oboes and clarinets, mockingbirds and cicadas. Here, in the dream-space of time-lapse film, forms of life and ideas collide and morph, rippling through centuries of human consciousness to unravel as quickly as they ravel. Here, above all, Martin makes it possible to dance among our ‘origins in snake oil,’ our ‘crusades to mirages’ and our ‘accidental fictions’.”—Meredith Quartermain
“A dreamscape on the outskirts of town, ‘in the badlands of the vernacular,’ these hopeful, haunted poems populated by children and prisoners ‘hover between’ realms domestic and exterior, real and imagined. Like candles described herein, this book gives off a melting, tactile glow.”—Arielle Greenberg
My box of Looms has arrived, and copies distributed to five Goodreads winners.
Shearsman Books has a pdf sample as well as a handy list of links where you can order the book.
Many thanks to Tony Frazer, publisher extraordinaire of Shearsman Books.
May the poems in Looms bring you pleasure!
detail from Robert Zend’s typescape Peapoteacock
A few months ago, I wrote a brief essay about Daymares, Robert Zend’s collection of stories, poems, and concrete poetry, one of his few books still in print. Zend (1929-1985) was a Hungarian-Canadian writer who immigrated to Canada in 1956, the year of the Hungarian Uprising. He settled in Toronto and worked for many years for the CBC. He was one of the most versatile Canadian writers, producing poetry, concrete poetry, novels, short fiction, essays, and plays. He was also a composer, a filmmaker, and a creator of mertz-like sculptures made of found objects.
While researching the Toronto Reference Library’s holdings of Zend’s works, I came across a thirty-year old treasure in the Special Art Room Stacks: Arbormundi (Tree of the World), a portfolio of seventeen of Zend’s concrete poems created on a typewriter, for which he coined the word “typescapes.” Although Zend didn’t invent typewriter art, he did seem to have created it without knowledge of any forebears in that genre. Below is the cover page. Following this brief essay are five more samples of typescapes from Arbormundi.
Zend’s typescapes are remarkable for their meticulous execution, which often involves superimposed shapes and figures. At the areas of intersection of these shapes, the effect is far from being muddied or heavy. Instead, they retain the delicacy that is characteristic of the whole.
Part of the beauty of these concrete poems is the ethereal effect produced by the transparency of the overlaid shapes. The result of this diaphonous quality is that it is difficult to determine which object is in front or behind the other: The objects seem to blend into one another, a visual legerdemain made possible by the open spaces of the typed letters and symbols: a superimposed “x” and “p” gives little hint as to which was typed over the other. Therefore the realm in which the ghostly forms interact spatially and symbolically is flattened into a plane of shared patterns and meanings. Zend’s often punning titles also reflect this idea of blending, as for example in “Peapoteacock,” where he brings “teapot” and “peacock” into verbal and visual contiguity so that one is contained within the other.
Another aspect of the beautiful intricacy of the overlaid objects is that the areas of intersection naturally produce darker areas, which form shapes of their own consisting of outlines of both objects (as overlapping circles in a Venn diagram produce a shaded area formed with arcs from both circles). The interplay of the shapes of each object with the shapes produced by their overlay creates an impression of both dialogue and unity between the objects.
The miracle of these concrete poems is that from what must have been a slow and painstaking process of planning and execution using paper inserted into a clunky machine come visions of airy lightness and delicate movement.
All of these effects harmonize with Zend’s recurrent themes of commonality and universality: the Other within the I, and the endless cycle of creation and destruction. They seem to be part of Zend’s spiritual expression of the continuities of life and death; as Zend puts it in Daymares, from the “prenatal . . . to the land of time-spacelessness; to the tiny centre point of our individual self which strangely coincides with the three-billion other human centre-points, with those of the dead ones, with those of our more ancient ancestors: swimming, crawling and flying creatures, rooting-stretching plants and perhaps even with the centre-points of other alien-living-units, of agitatedly swirling atoms and majestically rotating galaxies.”
Below are five typescapes from Arbormundi, which was published by blewointment press in 1982. A note to the portfolio states that “Zend creates them with a manual typewriter; no electronics, computers or glue involved.”
Following this sampling is a typescape by Zend based on a portrait of him by Hungarian artist Istvan Vigh.
Vivarbor (May 16, 1978)
Detail of Vivarbor
Orientopolis (Eastern city) (June 1, 1978)
Uriburus (April 13, 1978)
Rhumballion (May 14, 1978)
Peapoteacock (May 16, 1978)
Zendscape by Robert Zend, based on a portrait by Istvan Vigh
Poet and publisher Joel Dailey is the author of Lower 48 (1999) and My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008), both from Lavender Ink. Since the mid-70s, he has published numerous chapbooks with small presses, including Surprised by French Fries (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), How to Wallpaper Like a Pro (Unarmed, 2007), Biopic (Igneus Press, 1999), Audience, Ambience, Ambulance (Blank Gun Press, 1999), and Mars, 1953 (Rumba Press, 1979). His magazine publications are too many to mention, but let’s just say they include Rolling Stone, Exquisite Corpse, Fuck, and New American Writing.
For many years Dailey has been an influential and generous presence in the New Orleans poetry community and far beyond. Through his long-running and iconoclastic magazine, Fell Swoop: The All Bohemian Revue*, he has published countless poets as well as many single-author issues by the likes of Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan Keith Abbott, Bill Berkson, and Richard Martin.
As for Dailey’s own poetry, Hank Lazer praises Lower 48 as “an energetic, humorous, edgy successor to Allen Ginsberg’s “America” in which “Dailey wanders this world of manipulative consumerism resisting its hold with his blazing stun-guns of outrage, paranoia, passion, and comedy, leaving a laminated America del Norte in his wake.”
And in My Psychic Dogs My Life, Kevin Killian “feel[s] the New Orleans gris-gris emanating from this book like candyfloss” and “the magic of a true trickster substituting words and ideas like dice in a shell game, conjuring spells on the unprepared.”
Samples of Dailey’s gris-gris can be found here, here, and here.
The following interview was conducted in one fell swoop, so to speak, on February 26, 2012.
* Subscription to the print-only Fell Swoop is $15 (USD) for three issues per year:
Fell Swoop / PO Box 740158 / New Orleans, LA / 70174 / USA
Camille Martin: Thanks, Joel, for sitting down with me in our respective cities of New Orleans and Toronto for this interview.
Some of your earliest poetry publications were in Rolling Stone, which you later collected into a chapbook, Not on the Cover. Before I knew that about you, I didn’t realize Rolling Stone was a haven for poetry. What was it like publishing there? Please tell me they paid you in concert tickets and coke bashes.
[“The Rolling Stone poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time.”]
Joel Dailey: Back in 1978 I was living in West Los Angeles working at a “literary” bookstore in Santa Monica called Intellectuals and Liars. At that time Rolling Stone was a newsprint weekly, publishing short poems between and among record reviews in the back pages of each issue. I don’t recall how or who but someone tipped me off that Charles Perry did the poetry editing out of the San Francisco office. So I sent off a batch of short poems and he took a couple. I later found out that Perry would have the accepted poems typeset and thumbtacked them all to a bulletin board. When an issue was nearly ready to go to print, he’d look for spaces in the record review section, and the poems which fit the openings were published. RS paid a modest sum upon publication, but I was convinced that hundreds of thousands of readers were having their lives changed by my little ditties hopping out of my typewriter. The RS poems had to be brief, quick and clever….writing for this market was actually good exercise for me at that time, as a writer I mean. How to say something deliberate and humorous, perhaps, was a challenge, and many of the ideas came right out of my journals from that time. To this day, my crisp journal entries, my habitual (yet another bad habit?) collecting of language sticks and stems, often leads to poems—or they become integral parts of poems. I still have the ten or so back issues of RS in which my poems can be found. The chapbook you mention is long out of print………..
CM: But thankfully not your long-overdue first book of poetry, Lower 48 (1999), nor My Psychic Dogs My Life (2008).
You’ve also published a plethora of chapbooks since 1975. The fifteen chaps of yours that grace the shelves of my left field poetry collection are gems of pop-culture mashup, cynical (and sometimes not-so-cynical) advice to the lovelorn, and other timeless matters. The earliest that I have is Positions, published by Morgan Press in 1976—a beauty of a little book.
Morgan Press and the others that have published your chapbooks read like a who’s who of renegade small presses from the 70s to the present: to name only a handful, Pentagram, Shockbox, Rumba Train, Blank Gun, Semiquasi, Lavender Ink, and of course your own self-styled “All Bohemian Revue,” the justly infamous Fell Swoop.
There’s a whiff of samizdat—or at least underground basement operation—about the small press culture and especially these chaps. Please describe your affinity for chapbooks, which you’ve made into a kind of art form in your oeuvre, and your experience publishing them with the small presses that you’ve worked with over the years.
[“I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette . . . I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches.”]
JD: You’re probably the one person besides me who thinks Lower 48 was overdue…..When I was growing up the kinds of jobs I imagined one day having all had to do with communication: I wanted to be a radio announcer, a journalist, a teacher. I got a small printing press one Christmas and began printing The Garfield Gazette, a three or four page newspaper. My mom still has a few issues salted away. I’d leave copies on the neighbors’ front porches. So this yearning to communicate was strong within me. I got onto poetry via Rod McKuen during my adolescent years and began writing. When the quality improved years later, 1975 saw my first chapbook, Exploring Another Leg, issued from Pentagram. Some of those deep-image poems appeared in magazines, but I had the feeling that them appearing separately diminished their impact. I needed to group them, the best of them, and fashion a chapbook—which I did, and the ms. hit Mike Tarachow at the right moment; he was very excited and had to publish it. Bless him.
Jack Spicer of course had the great idea that individual poems were better in a field of work; his notion of writing books (or chapbooks) instead of single poems was a valuable insight and very different from the workshop idea of penning the immortal poem, the one that will get you into The Greatest Hits of Am Po…..I’ve reveled in obscurity my whole writing life, and publishing with presses that were close to the ground, or even underground, well, they were a fit for my work, which is chafing at the margins, and now satirically attacks mainstream media, Am “culture” (when I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for the remote), and Am Poetry itself….I’m comfortable standing at the edge of the crowd rather than being engulfed in the thick of it.
CM: I hope someday we’ll be treated to the greatest hits from The Garfield Gazette!
I know that the work of Ted Berrigan was important to you early on. What was it about Berrigan’s work that affected you? What other poets were early influences? If you were to write your bildungsroman, would you describe any poetic epiphanies?
[“We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….”]
JD: Don’t hold your breath for seeing issues of The Garfield Gazette! I spent my junior year abroad at the University of Nottingham. At the time I was writing but I thought I was going to become an English professor with a Phd in Literature and the Nottingham year was, I thought, a necessary stepping stone in my envisioned academic career—but I was wrong about that….I met Philip Jenkins, a fellow student, a Welshman, at school there and he was heavily into the New York School and got me reading those poets, as well as the Black Mountain gang. Then we learned Ted Berrigan and the pregnant Alice Notley were at Essex for the year where Ted was teaching. Jenks took over the fledgling Literary Society and used its budgeted funds to bring this barbarian Ted Berrigan to read and give a lecture. We met Ted and Alice at the train station with a cold Pepsi (we had read The Sonnets, noting Ted’s favorite liquid) and he began talking and chain smoking….What he had to say in his non-stop fashion was beyond interesting. I had stopped attending classes at the university; I was disenchanted with the academick path I once sought and didn’t know what to do next…..Ted came on like gangbusters. His American accent, his bearing, his sureness in the idea that serving Poetry and living Poetry was not only the right choice, but the only choice—that devotion—all of that impressed me and guided me. Plus, at his reading he read great stuff; his works were terrific! Meeting him there on foreign soil changed my life for the better. I’ve never doubted that. Ted’s works have a lot to teach writers, and I’m delighted to see his Collected Poems and now his Selected Poems published so that a new generation has access to his work.
CM: Surprised by French Fries (haven’t we all been?) is a terrific chapbook hot off the Ugly Duckling Presse. The poems are by turns irreverent (“no ideas but in socks”), enlightened (“The earflaps are detachable so shutup.org”), and disturbed (“The previous owner may be previously disturbed”). Do you think of your poetry as holding up a mirror to media-saturated baby boomers and Gen-X? If we recognize ourselves in that mirror, should we be afraid? Very afraid?
Or do you think of it as helping us to chuckle through the sobbing?
[“How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something….”]
JD: I think we should all be terrified every second. Hiding under the bed as a matter of course can become a way of life, an indoor sport. Humor has always been an effective instrument and the definition of satire is humor with a point or at the point of a sword. I like to think that a reader of my work is immediately thrown off-balance by the poem not reading like his or her concept of what a poem is, or what it can do. For me, poetry has got to be entertaining and I set that standard for my own little creations, my windup monsters unleashed on unsuspecting readers of any generation. Milton Berle, that great standup slam poet, once said, “Laughter is an instant vacation…” I agree with him. Another great poet of our time whose works I treasure and admire, Anselm Hollo, once told me that for him if Language Poets didn’t have a sense of humor on display in their works it was a problem because then all you have is this dry, unending language flow. How to be boring in a new way is not my goal. The language has to be up to something…. I often surprise myself with the zingers that line up in my works….they are often pulled from my journal in which I record all manner of language bits, from magazine covers, tv news broadcasts, things I hear people say, to offbeat or common phrases I discover in student papers. The language surrounding us and creating our agreed-upon “reality” is rich, and out of that language pipe, I fashion poems. Ideally, the poems create an experience themselves instead of narrating past experiences—reading the poem is itself a fresh experience……
CM: Your poetry has been unflagging in its satirical edginess—to pick up on Berle, it has been an uninterrupted vacation. Has your writing changed from the time you started publishing around the mid-70s leading up to your most recent book, My Psychic Dog My Life, published by Lavender Ink, and beyond? Have you become more inclined, like a good Strangelove subject, to stop worrying and love the detritus of mass-pop-culture (please don’t reach for the remote just yet)? Or less?
[“. . . beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it . . .”]
JD: Recently a girlfriend of mine from the 70s when I was starting out with writing, recently she contacted me after no contact for 30+ years to say I ruined her life and she was dispatching a team of professional assassins to “take me out…” (just kidding). Actually, she was cleaning out her attic and stumbled upon a box of my letters, poems I’d written, etc. She was going to throw it all away but then thought better, found and emailed me, and sent this box, a literal and figurative blast from the past.. In exchange I sent her some recent books. She was astonished by how the 2011 scribblings were so different from the 1975 works—but she said many of the same elements were visible in the later works that she knew from the early, young man poems. Yes, a line of development (and hopefully, improvement) is clear as it is in many poets’ work if you get to see all of it. My poems from the 70s were more serious, but then I was also writing comical prose poems, and the Rolling Stone poems were lighter in tone. The surface of my writing now is fast in pace, humorous often by way of juxtaposition, but beneath this entertainment surface, there’s a critical, satirical message that happens without my completely controlling and engineering it. The message shows up, and I hope it’s heard or understood, understand?
CM: And the message is all the more effective, I think, because, as you say, you don’t completely control and engineer it, which is as good a segue as any to my next question.
Something you told me years ago about writing and editing has stayed with me, a twist on Kerouac: “First thought, best thought—unless it’s not.” I like the way this alerts us not to take the dictums of the legendaries too categorically. With all the manifestos and -isms stirring up the history of poetry, is there a danger in taking poetic camps and icons too seriously?
[“My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….”]
JD: Wait a sec, Camille—this question’s a lob, a telegraphed fastball right down the middle of the dinner plate…..I adore the movements and the isms….My entire life I’ve yearned, especially at night, to one day become an ism and finally amount to something….I liked Actualism, actually, a movement out of Iowa City (of all places!) in the 70s—which was a tongue-in-cheek goof, sort of, on isms and movements. The interested reader can find an informative essay on Actualism by Dave Morice on Andrei Codrescu’s website. Who’s to say the Surrealists weren’t kidding? Marcel DuChamp was—or wasn’t he? Writers of the NY School never really fancied themselves a school at all, but it’s facile to refer to them in that way. Same with The Language School or Black Mountain (which really was a school, sort of, with a campus and a towering giant named Charles Olson) These are individual writers whose work deserves individual attention (in varying degrees)….I believe there’s a real danger in taking everything too seriously—and for a poet, taking him/herself too seriously? That is a disaster, as it shows up in self-inflated, self-important, self-serving (that’s a good dose of self, no?) poetry which isn’t worth reading….I’m a cardcarrying member of the infamous Post Contemporary School—wanna see my badge?
CM: That’s tempting, Joel, let’s talk.
You have now published more than a hundred issues of the intrepid Fell Swoop, which takes its cue from the great mimeographed zines of the 60s such as Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. That makes it one of the longest-running small press magazines on earth. Ever. And it’s the only one I know that, like a box of Cracker Jacks on crack, includes the occasional plastic utensil to surprise and delight the unsuspecting subscriber.
the “None of the Talent, Half the Brain” issue
What’s the history of the Swoop? If there’s a secret to its longevity, does it come in a convenient, easy-to-swallow capsule? And do we dare to hope that it will never, ever, bow out gracefully?
[“Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature . . .”]
JD: It’s really a newsletter for the Insane or the Inane; it’s a bad habit and I’ll probably go blind from keeping at it….I’ve vowed to quit producing the Swoop dozens of times, but always returned to do another issue. I enjoy making the issues and sending them out….I guess when I stop enjoying the process, I’ll quit it. Our stated mission is to destroy American Literature, with a spotlight on Am Po, but truly Am Po is proving adept at destroying itself; it’s fraught with self involved careerists who are churning out Real Drivel (as opposed to Unreal Drivel, which might be more interesting)—and getting rewarded for it, as they slime trail along their “career paths” to Hooterville….
[“. . . the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something.”]
History? The right Reverend Richard Martin has been a contributor to every general issue; he is also our Resident Historian, a non-paying and rather cramped position….the magazine was born the summer Ted Berrigan died, in the early 80s. My reaction to his death was to create something, and so the Swooper was birthed and has continued these many years, publishing hundreds of engaging and worthwhile writers—including you, Camille…..
CM: It has been a privilege to contribute to the Swoop’s worthy cause of general mayhem.
Speaking of mayhem of a different sort, you and your family were greatly affected by Hurricane Katrina. Your home was flooded and you were displaced for months. I’ll never forget when you Fed-Exed your house key to me from your Pennsylvania home-away-from-home, so that I could sneak back into New Orleans, still under mandatory evacuation, and check up on your two cats.
In post-apocalyptic New Orleans, there was a point when Fell Swoop aficionados wondered whether the magazine would survive the disruption and continue to inject us with an antidote of impertinent chutzpah on a semi-regular basis. Après le deluge, what has given you the grit to forge ahead with your magazine, your poetry, and life in general?
A related question: In My Psychic Dogs My Life, there’s a section written under the sign of Katrina, “My Evacuation.” Whereas some poetry inspired by that muse-bitch takes a more lyrical, somber approach, in your work there seems to be a continuum in your absurdist take on the horrors-that-be—no doubt reflecting the nonstop flow of sense-defying news, pre- and post-K, in the (un)real world from which you draw your poetic raw materials. Was it difficult writing after Katrina, or was it—so to speak—cathartic?
[“It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—”]
JD: Katrina spawned a lot of things: reconstruction, displacement, suicides, divorces, widespread fraud—and I have to tell you, HK “inspired” a lot of terrible poetry. Of course HK affected me personally, as you point out, but in terms of my writing, it added a layer, another post-apocalyptic level. We literally started over here and did without numerous comforts people take for granted. There was no mail delivery in Orleans Parish for weeks, so the Swoop rented a po box in nearby Metairie in order to receive and send dispatches; we published an issue with Joe Brainard’s adapted and adopted beloved comic character Nancy on the cover screaming “Help!” We’re the better for having experienced HK I think; the city is stronger and making a comeback. It was a lot of work mixed with truckloads of Uncertainty, but, hell, the terms of existence bleed Uncertainty—we foolishly convince ourselves that we’re secure. Olson’s warning comes to mind, “Beware of Permanence!” Part of returning to the ‘normalcy’ of my life after HK was getting back to writing; the hurricane changed many things but not my continued and continuous absurdist view of the world and peddling it through new poems.
the historic Nancy issue
CM: Are there any top-secret projects in the wings that you’d like to spill to WikiLeaks?
[“We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed.”]
JD: I wish I had a top secret or a top hat project to give you and your readers a scoop, but o and alas. We just released The Human Bond by Clark Coolidge, a single author issue. This is Clark’s recent James Bond sonnets—not to be missed. He is a very interesting writer whose work I obviously value, a writer who’s sort of flying beneath the radar, but his work pushes limits and buttons and it does and has been doing so since the 60s. Another recent single author number is The ABC Of Duck, by a creature named Duck Martian, an alphabetical work; this feathered fowl definitely knows his ABC’s. So interesting material is still being created, and Fell Swoop is proud to offer these works to an adoring public……
CM: Rightly so.
I’ve known you for a long time, Joel, yet the marrow of your being remains a mystery to me. My Psychic Dogs My Life opens with a devastating autobiographical exposé:
A little about my life
Please help your fans understand: who’s the real Joel Dailey? Who or what will we encounter under the layers of shrinkwrap?
[“We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..”]
JD: You make me chuckle, Camille….What’s inside your shrinkwrap? I looked up the meaning of my first name once; Joel was defined as “lover of literature,” and that’s true, I am. I often teach British Lit. Survey; the Romantic Age is my favorite period. I love Shakespeare’s tragedies. My two daughters grew up hearing, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” I can leer like Lear. My tastes in fiction tend to be conventional (Jane Austen is the berries, as Al Capone might have said) rather than experimental or just plain old mental. We’re all walking (or crawling) contradictions…..It’s like my Uncle Walt was fond of observing, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes….” In point of measurable fact, I’m an extra-large——
CM: Thank you for sharing, Joel.
For our readers: Below is a bonus package of Dailey chapbooks. Click on any one to get the gallery view.
“Sleeves Hold Up the Coat”
“The Sea Hag’s Last Stand”
Also in the issue are works critical and poetic by Gary Barwin, Marcus McCann, Pattie McCarthy, rob mclennan, Sean Moreland, and Monty Reid.
Poets who have published with Shearsman include Mark Scroggins, Maxine Chernoff, Tony Lopez, anne blonstein, Carrie Etter, Joseph Massey, Lisa Samuels, Eileen Tabios, Tom Clark, Anne Gorrick, Michael Heller, and Scott Thurston, to name only a few.
Among Canadian poets, Erin Mouré has published three books of translations of the poetry of Chus Pato for Shearsman.
I’m in fierce company.
Unless predictions of Doomsday 2012 come true, Looms will loom on the horizon in fall 2012.
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2010
“I transgressed the imagined
and resisted the ordered metaphors
– from Decompositions
For most of his life, Ken Belford has lived in the rural and wilderness areas of the Nass Valley in northern British Columbia. In his latest book of poetry, Decompositions, his meditations on humans and nature have entered a new breadth of poetic maturity and ecological wisdom that comes from years of sustaining himself from the land and being attentive to the “intelligence of nature” (Belford).
His poetry is down-to-earth, conversational. But Belford’s self-description as an autodidact—poetically or otherwise—should not be construed as a marker of unsophistication. Here is an ecologically-minded poet whose complex thought arises not only from scientific knowledge of ecosystems, geology, microbiology, and genetics, but also—and more importantly—from a lifetime of observing and meditating on the intricate connections between land and its inhabitants. And in Decompositions, Belford voices his seasoned understanding of the natural world and the human pressures that transform it. It’s poetry that has been decades in the ripening: rooted in long experience, enlightened by keen awareness, and expressed with an original and quietly compelling poetic sensibility.
I’m fascinated by the uniqueness of Belford’s poetic voice in comparison to that of many contemporary nature poets. And I think it’s important to understand what sets his work apart because of a set of expectations that readers (including myself) may bring to nature poetry and its more current rubric, eco-poetry. So first: what his approach to nature poetry is not.
Nature poetry can dazzle with lavish description and linguistic pyrotechnics, but in contrast to poets who offer the reader an epiphany of place recognition, Belford asks,
says good writing conveys
a strong sense of place?
Belford is wary of the type of “possessive poem” that attempts to capture its object through descriptive details:
The aggressive impulses of
the lyric load the details
of the story with what seems
to be a post-dating hangover.
Tongue in cheek, Belford suggests that, perhaps counter-intuitively, a poetics of descriptive infatuation might have a numbing effect as one becomes inebriated with the language that tries more to “capture” the lover than to explore and cultivate a mutual partnership.
Also, some nature poets are inclined to forewarn and prescribe, but for Belford,
The apparent attempts at
moral instruction from poets
who do not own their own
lives makes me think that about
is control, which is why I’m
not convenient, and more
temporary, why I long to be
idle and purposely dormant,
and accelerate from
those empty places country
does not allow escape from.
Inconvenient indeed, if what a reader seeks is use-value to adorn an ideological or political banner. Belford’s poetry resists the easy sound byte and knee-jerk emotions about nature that may find themselves subservient to causes.
And nature poetry can lament lost Arcadias. But Belford renounces idyllic worlds that never existed anyway:
It’s best to blink and learn to forget
if it’s arcadia or aecidia, best to be
happy, and forget the topological terms
of day, the derivatives of night, and
let the pre-existing ideal slip your mind
and be bygone, and accommodate
the misfit. Images are nomadic.
In short, Belford isn’t so much interested in generating a sense of wonder about nature, in offering artificially-imaged nature as “a lifestyle Photoshop retouches,” or in engendering a feeling of melancholy or moral outrage about ecological disruption. This is not eco-poetry with an agenda. Belford’s more concerned with exploring with open mind the entanglements of nature (wild or channelled) and human perception, language (including poetic language) and social interactions. And in these explorations, “misfits” are not anomalies, and images—being the product of brains whose plasticity mirrors nature’s own continual shiftings—are not stable.
“Inter-connectedness” has become an ecological cliché, a vague truism for the web of dependence linking natural phenomena. As Belford questions his relation to his natural surroundings, he avoids such easy sentiments (which might arise from an “about” branch of nature poetry) by meditating on processes of evolution and genetics:
[T]he type of contact I lived was not
a food, or family, or animal contact route,
but evolved from a common ancestor.
His relation to nature doesn’t so much resemble the unthinking and likely accidental “contact route” followed by the spread of pathogens. It’s more like a feeling of relatedness to other beings through the genetic links of common ancestry. He describes his genes as having descended from
an old sequence recopied upstream
in a new strand that follows flooding
and I’m good at attaching to surfaces.
His arrival from distant ancestors is a traversal of nature in time that recognizes his (literal) inter-relatedness with all beings by virtue of his descent downstream, “follow[ing] flooding,” from common ancestors. Although this kind of genetic transmission is “vertical” in the biological sense of descent from parent to offspring, Belford emphasizes the horizontal links with other beings, forged by common ancestry. He views distant cousins on the tree of life as important a part of his family as great grandparents.
He also portrays his existence in the world in horizontal terms: he “attach[es] to surfaces” and
integrat[es] in through recombinations
as a naked piece of DNA in the environment,
not passed vertically
from generation to generation,
but by means of the conjugation of plasmids
into the occupation of the new.
The metaphors of horizontal and vertical genetics offer a distinction that is important to Belford’s outlook. Vertical genetic transfer represents the line of ancestry from which each living being has descended. An emphasis on the vertical thus prioritizes one’s own familial lineage, as opposed to recognizing one’s relatedness to species that branched off from our own line. The image of verticality makes it easier to conceptualize homo sapiens as having a unique and special rank at the pinnacle of the evolutionary tree.
By contrast, Belford likens his being within nature to horizontal genetic transfer (as in the conjugation of plasmids), which involves the passing of genetic material from one cell to another. The receiving cell is not considered to be the offspring of the donating cell though this type of transfer can be a mechanism of evolution.
Thus Belford envisions neither himself as a child of nature nor nature as his Garden of Eden. Instead, he sees himself and his natural environment as interacting systems of lateral exchange and mutation. And this view allows him to recognize that the human mind is only one instance of intelligence in nature, which has endowed other beings with their own native intellect in negotiating their worlds:
A wolf decided to
walk with me. They keep lists.
C is for company. You go up and
north at the same time. Everything
that lives acts in a particular way
and has a reason to live.
As a dweller in the wilderness who has seen the encroachment of loggers and farmers, Belford writes in many poems in Decompositions about the disruption of ecosystems and the ensuing ill effects on nature and humans, especially the poor: deforestation, the decline of diversity, the invasion of non-native species, and the spread of pathogens (“the fevers that go with harm” and that disproportionately affect the poor). The latter is both a literal problem and an analogy for economic forces that pave the way for the dissemination of disease and, ironically, enough, for the
good roads [that] bring
health care in because the
villages are going to need it.
In the midst of the disturbed soil and leaching toxins that degrade wilderness and disrupt ecosystems, Belford reflects on the ecological philosophy that he embraces, for he’s
sympathetic to trans-species, overgrown
gardens, and fragmentation and loss, and
of the conflicts and pathways toward coexistence.
I almost glossed over the word “trans-species” but learned that the term refers to an environmental outlook developed by Gay Bradshaw that
re-embeds humans within the larger matrix
of the animal kingdom by erasing the “and”
between humans and animals that has been
used to demarcate and reinforce the false
notion that humans are substantively
different cognitively and emotionally from
other species. (qtd. in Marino)
In Belford’s reference to trans-species, I’m again reminded of his emphasis on the horizontal exchange of genetic material. Vertical descent can suggest differentiation among species, notwithstanding the common ancestors that unite humans to every other living being. But horizontal cellular exchange implies, in the here and now, a non-hierarchical stance in relation to other beings and, indeed, the topology and matter of the land.
Belford’s turning away from the vertical “sequence of ancestors” is also consonant with his more general “shifting trust of order’s / single-file chain of incidents”: He’s no writer of “orderly passages” but of thoughts that “deviat[e] from the expected.”
I admire and respect Belford’s Decompositions because of its groundedness in science and long experience. And these tell him that inherent in biological and geological processes are constant shifts among order, chaos, growth, and decay:
is weather, the mind is a wetland,
instincts come and go, responses
evolve, and signals mix.
And it also reminds him that like his poems, to which he attributes “high mutation rates,” his own life is part of nature’s ongoing process:
I’m forever in potential,
always wandering around, getting to
the top, and rolling down the other side.
I’ll give Belford a long last word by quoting a poem, one of my favourites, from Decompositions:
I bit into a persimmon and the weather
on the other side of town seemed murky
and sour, not because it was still and
without explanation, but a skip. It’s
just what happens. After all, nothing
is restricted to straight lines, and
the reflective surface of the page is
sometimes cool and cold, or warm and hot.
And there, by the edge of a weary pond,
smelled the ba and bit and breath of life,
for the earth does breathe, and flicked
a match and smoked in the breathing place
where phenomena are not perception,
but drag one weary foot after another.
And in the fetid air, inhaled and exhaled,
and stayed a while, for something like
a happy hour in the brush, for a puff
of air and a puff of smoke and a rest
in the steam and stench of suggestion.
Belford, Ken. “de comp.” Message to the author. 10 July 2011. E-mail.
Marino, Lori. “A Trans-Species Perspective on Nature.” In On the Human: A Project of the National Humanities Center. http://onthehuman.org/2010/11/trans-species-perspective/