Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Five Homage Poems at Penumbra

I have five poems published at Penumbra, the official, refereed, scholarly journal of Union Institute & University’s Ph.D. Program in Interdisciplinary Studies. The journal, as it describes itself, is published at regular intervals and dedicated to challenging traditional academic and creative disciplinary boundaries in the context of social change.

My poems are in homage to Archie Shepp, Bill Evans, Peggy Pond Church, Leroy Carr, and Richard Realf (three musicians, two poets).


Read them online here:
https://unionpenumbra.org/article/five-homage-poems/

Monday, June 04, 2018

Spectra Article in Twentieth-Century Literature

My article “‘bullets for hands’: Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and the Spectra Poems of World War I” is now published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Twentieth-Century Literature, vol. 64, no. 2 (June 2018), pp. 223-46.  Below is the abstract, and the first page is above.

The Spectra hoax, which saw poets Witter Bynner (as Emanuel Morgan) and Arthur Davison Ficke (as Anne Knish) publish the anthology Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (1916), produced a quite striking body of poetry. Despite its parodic origins, Spectra included some of the most resonant responses to World War I. Recent criticism of Spectrism understandably tends to emphasize the hoax aspects of this fascinating episode in modernist history, focusing on the performance of identity, for example. Yet, Bynner himself stated his genuine affirmation of the anthology’s work beyond the satiric circumstances of its creation, and the experience of their self-created, alternative avant-garde ended up having longer-term effects on both his and Ficke’s careers. This essay argues that engaging with Spectra beyond its hoax limits allows us to explore its wider aesthetic and sociopolitical relevance to the period, shedding further light on contemporary perceptions of Imagism and Vorticism, particularly in the context of the poetry of the Great War.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Bill Hughes, Delirium

Bill Hughes’s new poetry collection, Delirium, is out now from Six Gallery Press.  Call me biased, because I know Bill and did the layout for this book, but I think his (often) surrealistic work is visionary and marvelous, and that his new collection is his best yet.

As I said, I did the layout for this project, but of course it’s John Menesini’s paintings that really make this cover look great.

Order the book here:
https://www.amazon.com/Delirium-Bill-Hughes/dp/1926616979/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1527162780&sr=1-1&keywords=bill+hughes+delirium

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Smithereens Literary Magazine #1

The first issue of Smithereens Literary Magazine is out, featuring a slew of excellent poems, including from Mairéad Byrne, Maurice Scully, Ellen Dillon, Giles Goodland, and many more.  I have a new poem in there, myself.  Many thanks to Smithereens Press.

The magazine uses the Issuu platform, or can be downloaded as a PDF.  Links:

http://smithereenspress.com/publications/slm1.html

http://smithereenspress.com/images/slm1.pdf

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Two Poems at Rabid Oak

I have two new poems up at Rabid Oak (issue 4), an online literary journal edited from California’s southern San Joaquin Valley.

Read them here:
https://rabidoak.com/issues/issue-4/two-by-michael-begnal/

Friday, March 30, 2018

Blackbird 13 & Penn/Stone Chapbook

Blackbird 13
Blackbird is a journal of poetry, collage, and mail art, edited and published by David Stone, poet and director of the Blackbird Institute.  The new issue 13 (2018) is now out, featuring contributions from poets Eric Basso, Simon Perchik, Arnold Skemer, Cheryl Penn, Stone, and many others including myself.  This is the kind of interesting publication you see less of nowadays, in our internet age — photocopied, physically curated, physically distributed. 

Copies can be obtained from David Stone at the Blackbird Institute, P.O. Box 16235, Baltimore, MD, 21210, USA.  $25.00 for domestic (USA), $35.00 international.  No credit card orders: pay by personal check or money order.

Also of interest is the recent collaborative chapbook by Cheryl Penn and David Stone, titled Unpacking Jasmine, Part I (2017).  It takes up the figure of “Jasmine” in Stone’s writing, to which Penn responds and elaborates, tracing his evolution through years and multiple publications.  Excerpts from Stone spark a further riff from Penn, and the result is a dialectic that crosses the genres of poetry, prose, and photography.  Covers are hand-painted.

Stone/Penn, Unpacking Jasmine, Part I

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Review: The Stooges - Highlights From The Fun House Sessions

Every so often Elektra will do a re-release package of some kind of the Stooges’ first two albums, such as the Rhino Handmade version of the first album or The Complete Fun House Sessions, both of which were released on CD.  There were also expanded mass-market CD releases of these albums in 2005.  Now that vinyl is most Stooges listeners’ preferred format again, Elektra has put out a color-vinyl double-album through the Run Out Groove imprint titled Highlights from the Fun House Sessions, of which only 2906 were pressed (they are numbered, with the individual number stamped on the back in gold-leaf).

One thing that is nice about this package is that the cardboard cover is thick and glossy, like an old-school gatefold record cover from the mid-60s (like the Impulse! albums, for example).  It is well designed, with liner notes in the gatefold discussing the importance of Fun House (the Stooges second album, 1970) and the rationale for putting out a new album of alternate takes culled from the Complete Sessions.  The iconic photo of Iggy being held aloft by the crowd at the 1970 Crosley Field gig is smartly chosen and the layout looks good.  Design-wise, there is one tiny flaw: the text on the spine gives “Funhouse” as one word, whereas the album is actually titled Fun House (two words).  This error is repeated once in the liner notes, though it is of course a minor complaint.

More importantly, Highlights from the Fun House Sessions sounds great.  Elektra/Run Out Groove have done a very decent mastering and pressing job, at least it seems on my stereo.  The selections are also not all the same as on the 2005 CD release, making this a uniquely thought-out collection.  There are a couple of overlaps with that CD, but also some different takes.  I like the longer 17-minute “Freak” (a.k.a. “L.A. Blues”) as the whole of Side 4.  What I don’t understand is that, on Side 3, the takes of “1970” and “Lost in the Future” are incomplete — the band breaks down and stops halfway through.  Not a huge deal with “1970,” since a good, complete version is also on Side 2, but particularly with “Lost in the Future,” it’s a kind of a missed opportunity, because there was a complete take of it (which is on the 2005 CD) (and obviously all of these are on the Complete Sessions), and you would think you would want to showcase it, as the one actual fully realized outtake song that didn’t make it onto the original album.  “Slide” is on here in complete form, appropriately, but that is really just a jam, where Ron Asheton practices the licks he uses on “Dirt.”  The band does get into a good groove on this.  But it is just a bit annoying about the lack of the full “Lost in the Future” (to me, anyway; others may not mind).  What I would have done with Side 3 is: cut the incomplete “1970” and the second version of “T.V. Eye,” and would instead have gone with: a further alt take of “Fun House” (because Steve Mackay really wails on those!), included the complete version of “Lost in the Future,” and then “Slide.”

In any case, this is a very cool release, which I enjoyed hearing and will undoubtedly play often.  It also makes me think: Elektra or Run Out Groove should do an “alternative” version of the first album, on vinyl, like this new Fun House package.  It should include the full versions of the songs on the first album without the fadeouts, including the super-long “Ann,” some of the alt-versions, and add “Asthma Attack.”  These have only ever been released on CD, not on vinyl (aside from the 7” of “Asthma Attack” included in the Rhino package).  If they really want to go all in, they could include a third disc with the original John Cale mixes at the proper speed (since Rhino mastered them too slow on the Handmade release, I think it was), and make it a triple album.  Here’s roughly how that album should go; Elektra take note:

Side 1:
1969 (full version, no fadeout)
I Wanna Be Your Dog (full version, no fadeout)
No Fun (full version, no fadeout)

Side 2:
Real Cool Time (full version, no fadeout)
Ann (full version, no fadeout)
Not Right (full version, no fadeout)
Little Doll (full version, no fadeout)

Side 3:
Asthma Attack
We Will Fall (the alt version, first released on Rhino Handmade)

Side 4:
All the best alt-vocals versions and outtakes that can fit on the side.

Sides 5-6:
The Cale mixes, mastered at the proper speed, in the sequence of the album.
Do it!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review in Poetry Ireland - Trumpet

My review of three Irish poets’ recent work is published in the latest edition of Poetry Ireland’s journal of criticism and opinion, Trumpet (Issue 7, Winter 2017/18).  My review focuses on Trevor Joyce, Fastness (Miami University Press, 2017), Nerys Williams, Cabaret (New Dublin Press, 2017), and Susan Connolly, Bridge of the Ford (Shearsman Books, 2016).

Here are just a few snippets:

Following on from his previous engagement with Edmund Spenser, Rome’s Wreck (2014),  Trevor Joyce’s Fastness is a translation from the heightened English of Spenser’s Mutability Cantos (written during the late 1590s) into a more contemporary if still intensified language, which Joyce describes as ‘an artificial dialect’. . . .

Like Joyce, Nerys Williams too is concerned with the impact of history and oppression. In Cabaret, however, she takes up the more contemporary history of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, moving across Ireland, Wales, and the United States. Her focus is often on the ways in which capitalism and imperialism shape society and the environment, but also on the role of art and culture in resisting dominant discourses.

Susan Connolly, in Bridge of the Ford, bridges the ancient (the field of Gaelic place-name study known as dinnseanchas) with a kind of work that is usually seen as modernist or avant-garde (visual, concrete, typographical poetry). In her introduction, Connolly states that she is influenced by bpNichol, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Dom Sylvester Houédard, on the one hand, and the Irish illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, on the other, in equal measure.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Meng Chiao’s Late Poems

Meng Chiao (also spelled Meng Jiao) (751-814), a poet of the late Tang Dynasty era, has been something of a revelation for me.  Via the immense distraction but occasional wonders of modern-day social media, I saw a poetry friend post a couple of Meng’s works, translated by David Hinton, and immediately had to acquire the book (The Late Poems of Meng Chiao, Princeton University Press, 1996).  I had previously read the couple of short poems of Meng’s included in Witter Bynner’s 1929 translation (with the assistance of Kiang Kang-Hu) of the classic anthology Three-Hundred Poems of the T’ang (which Bynner titled The Jade Mountain), but hardly registered them.  As Hinton writes, Meng’s earlier work was “decidedly mediocre: conventional verse often mired in petty obsessions and inevitably undone by his penchant for the strange and surprising” (xiii).  A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang (1965) gives a good overview of Meng’s career, but Hinton’s Late Poems of Meng Chiao encompasses their broader breadth.

In these sequences, Meng has decided to foreground the “strange and surprising,” verging into what we might now call surrealism, marshaling intense images of the natural world, often of winter, ice, frozen streams, moonlight like sword-blades, ephemeral blossoms.  These long sequences allow for repetition of the images, with certain differences or variations on the theme, building up layers of meaning in the process of writing (and reading) them.  Hinton points out that such larger sequences were rare in Chinese poetry at this time, and that Meng’s “innovations anticipated landmark developments in the modern western tradition by a millennium” (xv).  In Hinton’s translation, they do read rather like avant-garde, twentieth-century American poetry, a bit like William Carlos Williams or George Oppen perhaps.  Without facing originals or some discussion of the translation process, it’s hard to tell how much of this effect comes from Hinton himself (for example, I suspect Meng’s original Chinese lines were end-stopped, whereas Hinton frequently enjambs them), but in any case the images and repetition come through to give a quite stunning sense of what Meng was doing here.

Though informed by Taoism and its affirmation of change and the cyclic nature of life, Meng’s worldview is somewhat harsh, at times pessimistic: “The Way of heaven / warns against fullness: it just empties away” (70).  Of poetic “fame,” he writes in his elegy for Lu Yin, “after a long illness, your body lies waiting // among all those prize books hungry mice / shredded and scattered through the house” (5).  The keynote, throughout, though, is winter’s ice and cold, or, as in these lines from “Autumn Thoughts,” the foreboding of coming winter:

Bitter winds sob among thorn-date branches,
wu-t’ung leaves now faces of frost on high,

and as old insects cry parched-iron cries,
a startled animal howls lone, jade-pure howls. (74)
Perhaps, it could be said, Meng’s poems themselves are “lone, jade-pure howls.” Though he sparked a significant if short-lived alternative movement in ancient Chinese poetry (one of his acolytes being Li He, who I wrote about here), Meng seems still to be somewhat overlooked in the West, despite Hinton’s now 22-year-old reclamation project.  However, there is a bleak beauty in these late poems of his.  Not only do they make up some of the greatest of Tang-era poetry, but they also, I would suggest, speak to our present moment, however obliquely — philosophically, politically (the late Tang was a period of political uncertainty, corruption, and war, and this hangs in the background of Meng’s work), and metaphorically.  Here is one poem from Meng’s “Cold Creek,” utterly, shockingly un-ignorable:

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Haniel Long and Kropotkin

In my essay “Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda: Documentary Form and 1930s Political Poetry” (College Literature, vol. 4, no. 1, 2015), I discussed Long’s progressive political orientation, especially his embrace of Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty (1879) (indeed, Long writes a whole section of the Memoranda [1935] inspired by George).  I also noted his suspicion of fanatics, whatever side of the political spectrum they happened to lean toward.  For example, throughout the first sections of the Memoranda, Long writes a lot about Pittsburgh industrialist Andrew Carnegie, his henchman Clay Frick, and the anarchist Alexander Berkman, who attempted to assassinate Frick in response to Frick’s crushing of the 1892 Homestead steelworkers’ strike.  While Long is completely on the side of the workers, for example lauding them as “more gleaming, than skein of metal” (16), he does not affirm Berkman’s actions.  In fact, he equates them with Frick’s and portrays both men as fanatics, one in the service of capitalism and the other of anarchism: “Frick was sure God was with him. // So was Berkmann [sic]” (30).

The problem here, for Long, is what he sees as the excesses of ideology, or of ideologically driven, self-important individuals.  In his book-length meditation on Whitman, Walt Whitman and the Springs of Courage (1938), Long attacks “our twentieth century world of megalomaniacs, neurotics, and convicts locked up in the jail of themselves and their theories” (43).  In place of such “theories,” Long, in Pittsburgh Memoranda, posits the necessity to overcome the self and move beyond such egotism: “Some people are not afraid things can overpower them,” he writes; “Some people can accept things without forcing their will upon them” (30).  While Long eschews prescriptive dogmas, it does not however mean that he constructs Pittsburgh Memoranda in the absence of any sort of political, philosophic, or economic foundation, and of course Henry George is important for him. 

But there are other thinkers who inform this work, including the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin.  While Long’s dismissal of Berkman might suggest that he was hostile to anarchism itself, this is not quite the case.  In an interview with Mary Frances Mackel, Long avers, “I have been greatly influenced by Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid as a Factor in
Evolution” (qtd. in Benjamin A. Botkin, Introduction, Notes for a New Mythology and Pittsburgh Memoranda, 1971).  As David Kadlec summarizes in his book Mosaic Modernism: Anarchism, Pragmatism, Culture (2000), “Peter Kropotkin is perhaps the best-known example of an anarchist who openly engaged with the writings of Charles Darwin.  In his 1902 treatise Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued for cooperation rather than competition as a guiding principle of evolution; that work became one of the most widely read anarchist texts of the twentieth century” (250).  Kadlec numbers Kropotkin among the ranks of “nonviolent anarchists” (42), which further helps to explain Long’s willingness to extol him, where he discounts Berkman.

Though not explicitly referenced in Pittsburgh Memoranda, Kropotkin’s influence is apparent.  In Mutual Aid, he attacks the “reckless prosecution of personal interests” (1955 edition, 283) and “the self-assertion of the individual . . . in its efforts to attain personal or caste superiority” (295).  In Pittsburgh Memoranda, Long too attacks “self-assertion” (30) and the egotism of those he calls the “granite men” (12) or “the Napoleon-man” (85).  At the same time, Kropotkin makes clear that his emphasis on collectivity and cooperation does not come at the expense of individual expression, with “its much more important although less evident function of breaking through the bonds, always prone to become crystallized, which the tribe, the village community, the city, and the State impose upon the individual.  In other words, there is the self-assertion of the individual taken as a progressive element” (295).  Similarly, in the “Duse” section of Pittsburgh Memoranda, Long argues that “the need for the disappearance of the individual / has come upon us — but never of the individual soul” (63-64).  While Long is not an anarchist (following George, Long sees a role for the state as administrator of an egalitarian society), Kropotkin’s cooperative anarchism could be said to inform the dynamic between the individual and the collective that plays such a major role in this book, indeed in much of Long’s poetry.

Long, in Pittsburgh Memoranda, writes about political corruption, the growing power of corporations, and the exploitation of workers.  While his braiding of the thinking of Kropotkin and George is idiosyncratic, it is not to say it is easily dismissed.  It makes poetic sense, and, more than 80 years later, perhaps it can still even be inspiring.  Kropotkin formulated his political ideas in Mutual Aid by observing nature, and Long notes that “Science / teaches its lesson with a ruthless quiet” (83).  As he builds toward the conclusion of Pittsburgh Memoranda, he attacks the corruption that had befallen the democracy of his own time, but suggests hopefully that “The way of political action still remains”:

. . . Humility and brotherly love
and a knowledge of corporations
and a knowledge of mass production
and a recollection of the ancient truths
and thoughtful watching of how a good vine bears its grapes—
these are to be among the guides for action.  (83)
Finally, it is the collective power latent in the people that Long identifies as the mechanism for confronting and resisting political oppression.  As he comes home to Pittsburgh and observes the city through the smoke and fog, he gives us these lines:
Despite the horrors of my time, I knew
(and knew it with the greatest joy life gives),
that there were people in that hidden city
seeking the laws of life, mingling their knowledge,
suffering but finding peace in one another,
and learning more and more not to wish power
over anyone but themselves. (84)

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Hüsker Dü, Savage Young Dü / Extra Circus

Savage Young Dü is the Numero Group’s long-awaited box-set collection of early Hüsker Dü recordings (four vinyl records and a hardcover book, also available on CD), from their earliest demos and live stuff in 1979, up through the recordings of their first two albums (Land Speed Record [1982] and Everything Falls Apart [1983]), and even live performances anticipating the recording of Metal Circus (1983).  This material is significant musically in itself, but also for filling in an important historical gap in the development of American rock’n’roll, especially punk and hardcore.  HD were up there with Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, et al. as one of the simultaneously quintessential and most original of hardcore bands.

Hüsker Dü’s “theme song” “Do You Remember” (which translates the Danish/Norwegian name of the Minnesota band) dates to a 1979 demo, and fittingly starts off the collection.  It’s a heavy punk number, with strong bar chords and a Ramones-like mid-tempo feel.  The next tune, “Sore Eyes,” foretells the combination of melodic chord progressions and vocals with the energy of hardcore that characterizes much of their more well-known work.  It is interesting to notice, right off the bat, how the seeds of their signature sound are sown in their earliest recordings.  At the same time, we see them in this early period making forays into other sounds, experimenting with poppy new-wave tunes and post-punk (“Outside” has hints of Joy Division or perhaps the Cure in places). Other early highlights include a cover of Johnny Thunders’s “Chinese Rocks” and a live 1980 version of “Data Control” (which song was later the highlight of the Land Speed Record album).

Beginning record two of the collection is Hüsker Dü’s first single, “Amusement” b/w “Statues,” which exhibits a post-punk Pere Ubu or Gang of Four-like sound and suggests the confused reaction of the audience at the time — other songs from this 1980 recording session which were not released are in HD’s by-then signature punk style (“Writer’s Cramp” and “Let’s Go Die”).  An early live version of “Wheels” (which was later recorded for Everything Falls Apart) is heard originally here in an industrial mode, with Grant Hart on a Casio keyboard and Bob Mould unexpectedly playing rudimentary drums. Greg Norton’s “Termination” sounds like an outtake from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.  HD finally come into their own, both according to the historical account and to this listener’s ears, after their cross-country (or -countries, since they played in Canada too) 1981 tour, which resulted in the live recording of the fast-paced Land Speed Record.

As for Land Speed Record, the original is sludgy and I was not bowled over by it when I got it in late 1982.  This is probably why I didn’t buy the subsequent “In a Free Land” 7” at the time, when I could have, which of course I regret — so it is nice to have the songs now, as that EP I think is the best of their very early releases, and puts forward a still-relevant political stance.  The original tape of the LSR album was lost, and Numero, working with Grant Hart, found another, similar live recording from the same time period to make up an “alternate” version of the album.  The new version actually sounds a lot better to me, but I was a tiny bit disappointed that it didn’t have “Data Control” and others.  Yes, those songs are there in other parts of the anthology, but it isn’t the same as having a fully replicated LSR album.  What we do have, though, is better than the original version.

Obviously, all of this material is great.  But from the early press releases, I expected actual “re-issue”-style packages of stand-alone albums for Land Speed Record and Everything Falls Apart, with reproductions of the original covers and lyrics sheets.  Instead, those recordings are contained on one side each of the ongoing anthology package.  It doesn’t matter that much to me, as I have the original albums, but it was just a little different than what I was expecting.  All wonderful listening, though.  The new LSR better exhibits Hüsker Dü’s speedy hardcore sound, and this package includes part of the second set from the LSR August ’81 show that didn’t appear on the original, including an early version of “Diane.”  EFA is nicely remastered and sounds amazing.  The last side includes live material from late 1982 that was shortly to be recorded for the 1983 12” EP Metal Circus (SST Records) — e.g. “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “Real World,” “Out on a Limb” — and these are blazingly tight versions.  The box-set fittingly ends with an announcer saying, in a Minnesota accent, “Let’s hear it for one of the greatest hardcore bands in the country, the Hüskers, huh?”  Whoever he was, he was absolutely right.

The accompanying book is well-written and nicely printed, with tons of photos, flyers, and ephemera.  Incidentally, it includes two photos from a 1983 Love Hall show in Philadelphia, the first time I saw Hüsker Dü.  The textual narrative traces the band’s origins from the very beginnings, highlights how early their connections with Black Flag and the SST people were, and takes them up through late 1982.  After this, of course, their SST releases were recorded (Metal Circus, the great Zen Arcade [1984], and so on) as they moved beyond hardcore (though they were never formulaic to begin with), leading eventually to major-label success.  But Savage Young Dü stops there, keeping its focus on the earlier years of the band, a seminal period in the development of a seminal band.

Numero Group has also concurrently released a separate 7” of the outtakes from the Metal Circus sessions, titled Extra Circus, which looks ahead tangentially into the next stage of their evolution.  This comprises the songs that for whatever reason were left off of the SST 12” and that all together would have made up a full-length LP.  I like how Numero imitated the SST layout of the labels (and back cover), along with an alternative color front photo of the mysterious office from the same shoot.

There are five songs: “Heavy Handed,” “You Think I’m Scared,” “Won’t Change,” “Is Today the Day?” and “Standing by the Sea” (the latter was later rerecorded for Zen Arcade).  Most of them are hard-hitting punk/hardcore blasts (a few recalling Black Flag’s sound on Damaged), which leads one to think that they were possibly originally omitted in order to highlight the band’s burgeoning melodic songwriting skills.  Much has also been written about HD’s disillusion with the growing conformism of the hardcore scene.  That said, Metal Circus is still pretty punky, so who really knows.  In any case, this record sheds new light on the broader project and suggests, to my mind anyway, that it should have been a full-length album, with all twelve of the tracks included.  There is not one song here that is somehow lacking or second-rate.

Taken as a whole, the 69 songs of Savage Young Dü and the five on Extra Circus create a sonic portrait of a group moving from its already strong beginnings to the height of its powers.  They reveal Hüsker Dü not only as an important punk band, but one of the greatest American rock’n’roll bands of all time.  Along with Metal Circus proper and Zen Arcade, this collects the most indispensable chunk of their music in one exhaustive anthology (and paired 7
).


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Thinking Continental Is Published

Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time (University of Nebraska Press), edited by Tom Lynch, Susan Naramore Maher, Drucilla Wall, and O. Alan Weltzien, is now officially out in the world.  I have a poem in this multigenre, multidisciplinary ecocritical anthology.

The book is 378 pages long, includes 15 photographs, yet is quite affordable.  As the blurb describes it:

In response to the growing scale and complexity of environmental threats, this volume collects articles, essays, personal narratives, and poems by more than forty authors in conversation about “thinking continental” — connecting local and personal landscapes to universal systems and processes — to articulate the concept of a global or planetary citizenship.

Reckoning with the larger matrix of biome, region, continent, hemisphere, ocean, and planet has become necessary as environmental challenges require the insights not only of scientists but also of poets, humanists, and social scientists. Thinking Continental braids together abstract approaches with strands of more-personal narrative and poetry, showing how our imaginations can encompass the planetary while also being true to our own concrete life experiences in the here and now.
It can be ordered direct from the publisher here:

http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9780803299580/

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ghost City Tapes, Vol. 1

Recently, Ghost City Press (publisher of my chapbook The Muddy Banks) brought together a compilation of spoken-word poetry from a number of the poets it has published.  It is called Ghost City Tapes, Volume 1, and includes two tracks of mine, where I read poems about the Pittsburgh neighborhood called Uptown.  Check it out (for free) here:

https://ghostcitypress.com/audio-recordings/

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Six Poems at Empty Mirror

I have six new(ish) poems published at Empty Mirror, an excellent journal of surrealist and post-Beat literature.  Read them here:
http://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/poems/6-poems-by-michael-begnal.html

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Retrospect: Kerouac, On the Road

I was prompted to set down these thoughts on Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957) by Hank Kalet, who has been writing a series of reflections on the same topic on his blog (starting here).

I first read On the Road I guess when I was about 17, so late 1983 or early ’84.  It was probably at the suggestion of my father, who was a professor of English.  I had up to that point been into Nietzsche, Kafka, Rilke, and other German and non-German existentialist sorts of writers.  Hermann Hesse, as well.  Around the same time as I read On the Road, I started reading other Beat writers — I got into Ferlinghetti and Corso around then too.

Upon first reading On the Road, of course I was dazzled by the long-ranging adventures of it, the
“plot” such as it is, the wild search for kicks, etc., and though I was capable of tuning into the aspect of literary language, it was really more the content that I became enamored of, and the romanticized vision of America, a kind of nostalgia for something I had not really experienced.  I didn’t pick up on the fact that it’s actually fairly pessimistic, especially as it moves toward the ending (despite the fantasy of Sals relationship with “Laura”), until my later re-readings of the novel.  As Kerouac himself wrote in a 1960 letter, “I’m middle aged now and no longer an enthusiastic college boy lyrically feeling America.”

In my early readings of the novel, I thought Kerouac’s depiction of Dean Moriarty (based of course on Neal Cassady) was simply as this heroic, charismatic figure who flouted straight conventions and so forth.  Somehow the ending just never sank in.  Over time, it became clear, as my own understanding of how literature works became more clear, that Sal rejects Dean and moves on from him, and that Dean, while being representative of a certain American type, is ultimately not portrayed as a model for a fully realized person to follow.

Indeed, Dean is depicted toward the end of On the Road almost as a ranting, nonsensical idiot.  I think it is in Desolation Angels that the protagonist Jack Duluoz relates his hesitance to show Cody (the Dean/Neal figure) the just-arrived copy of his “Road” novel.  The portrait of him isn’t always that glowing.  The problematic aspects of the novel — cultural appropriation, “slumming,” the negative portrayal of women generally, Dean’s treatment of women in particular (his broken thumb) — also became much clearer later on.

I’ve probably read On the Road about six times.  Most recently, it was in the last several years, when I taught it to undergrads a couple of times, and it went not as well as I had hoped.  There’s been a generational shift, I think.  Part of it seems to me short-sighted, if understandable: students being focused on jobs and careers, and so traveling “on the road” holds less appeal for them than it did for previous college-age kids.  But I think there is also much more awareness from the start now about the negative stuff mentioned above, which must be a good thing, though it makes it hard for some to appreciate what remains valuable about the novel.

At present, I see On the Road as a kind of picaresque — the Sal character is deliberately rendered as naive earlier on, and comes to some degree of awareness about Dean’s exploitative nature and the limitations of the American myth (in tandem I suppose) only over time.  In that way it is a smart novel, which ultimately subverts the very myths it is famous for.  I appreciate it for its style and its critical view more so than plot now, even though, if we’re going to talk about style, I think Visions of Cody (an alternative version of On the Road) is the superior novel and probably Kerouac’s masterpiece (that and Doctor Sax maybe).  I still think Kerouac is one of the greatest prose stylists in English of all time, along with James Joyce and Djuna Barnes (though I’m probably forgetting a couple of crucial names here).

Monday, July 31, 2017

On Denise Levertov’s To Stay Alive (1971)

I have recently been reading Denise Levertov’s late-60s/early-70s Vietnam-era poetry, and liking it very much — especially To Stay Alive (1971).  This is essentially a book-length poem (made up of shorter, inter-related poems) that occasionally incorporates found material and documents her experience opposing the war.  Especially given the political turmoil of our current moment, Levertov provides one possible way forward in regard to the writing of political poetry.

I had remembered reading somewhere, years ago now, that Levertov was attacked for this period of her writing, that supposedly it was slack or too close to sloganeering.  However, I found that accusation not to be accurate.  Sure, sometimes she is direct or personal, but to me this was powerful and often inspiring.  For example:

Brown gas-fog, white
beneath the street lamps.
Cut off on three sides, all space filled
with our bodies.
    Bodies that stumble
in brown airlessness, whitened
in light, a mildew glare,
    that stumble
hand in hand, blinded, retching. (“At the Justice Department”)
The enjambment of lines sets up interesting moments of surprise or expectations subverted, while the use of assonance and repetition lends a subtle layer of soundplay to what some at the time took as being merely prose-like free verse.

In certain moments, Levertov’s work in this collection is outright brutal, but justified in being so given its subject matter.  She writes in “Life at War” of

. . . the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.
This last line was one that Levertov’s close poet-friend Robert Duncan objected to as “an effect and tone of disgusted sensuality” (see Ange Mlinko’s excellent article on their debate over political poetry, here, from which the latter quote comes).  I don’t think Levertov was merely trying to draw attention to herself, as Duncan accuses her of doing; I think she’s employing the powers at her disposal, of language, to both render the awfulness of the war and to challenge the reader to confront it.  Duncan, however, may not have ultimately agreed that this can be part of poetry’s job.

In further researching all of this, I was reminded that the prominent Language-poetry critic Marjorie Perloff also attacked Levertov.  The same Marjorie Perloff who more recently has defended Kenneth Goldsmith and his appropriative reading of the Michael Brown autopsy report, and her subsequent statements on the matter that led Fred Moten to characterize her as “ignorant” and “cold-hearted” (see here, and here with further links).  Suddenly it all made sense; Perloff was on the wrong side both then and now.  As much as I like Duncan’s writing, and as much as I would even agree with many of the insights that later came out of Language poetry, people like Duncan and Perloff really seem(ed) to believe that poetry is somehow insulated from the wider world of politics and protest, that as Duncan wrote in 1971: “I am not talking about prisoners, blacks, children, and angry women in revolt — I am talking about those with work to do deserting their work. And our work is surely to get the words right. . .” (qtd. in Mlinko).  As if Levertov could not do both.  (I’ll leave aside, here, Duncan’s dismissive tone toward oppressed peoples and women.)

Perloff in a 1996 essay seconded Duncan’s suggestion that To Stay Alive was merely the outburst of an hysterical woman complaining about her own status: “Is what seems like a one-dimensional and simplistic lyric outburst against injustice or racism to be praised because its author is a member of a minority group and hence not to be subjected to the literary norms of the dominant race and class?” (“Poetry, Politics, and the ‘Other Conscience’: The Duncan/Levertov Correspondence”).  Like the New Critics before her, Perloff seems to believe in some sort of inherent, overarching criterion for “good” writing, and, more insultingly, that Levertov’s work was only taken seriously because she was a woman (whose father was a Jew who converted to Christianity).

In retrospect, Perloff and Duncan now seem woefully out of touch.  But even according to their own arbitrary premises, I would assert that Levertov’s political writing is also “good” poetry in itself.  Not only does she pay attention to language in interesting and compelling ways (with only  a couple brief examples given above), but as William Carlos Williams admitted in a famous interview, sometimes poetry can even be “a fashionable grocery list,” before going on to assert, “Anything is good material for poetry.  Anything.  I’ve said it time and time again” (The William Carlos Williams Reader, p. 100).  Levertov achieves what Williams does with sometimes quotidian material.

Additionally, it is worthwhile reading To Stay Alive is in the context of the documentary political poem, which has also been employed to great effect by Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Haniel Long, Charles Reznikoff, and many others.  Levertov notes in a 1972 interview that she had sought “the elbowroom of a diary form, incorporating prose passages as Williams had done in Paterson . . . and as Haniel Long had done in Pittsburgh Memorandum [sic]” (“‘Everyman’s Land’: Ian Reid Interviews Denise Levertov.” Conversations with Denise Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, UP of Mississippi, 1998, p. 74).

In her monograph on Levertov’s political poetry, Audrey T. Rodgers observes a “sense of immediacy” to the work that, rather than undermining it as Duncan and Perloff claim, “endows the whole with a high level of aesthetic value” (Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement, p.104).  Certainly there has been much political poetry that thrives on a similar sense of immediacy — Amiri Baraka comes to mind, to give just one other example — and it is often the case here.  Rather than feeling that Levertov was violating some abstract notion about “getting the words right,” in reading To Stay Alive I saw that she was in fact getting the right words, invigorating, beautiful words at that.

In Perloff’s case, it seems possible anyway that maybe really she just could be a political conservative in the guise of a radical-poetry critic (she was also part of Jacket 2’s recent attempt to explain away Gertrude Stein’s enthusiastic support for Marshal Pétain, for example; see here and here), and the fact that Levertov opposed Perloff’s appointment at Stanford (see Donna Hollenberg, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, p. 355) would not have helped matters.  However, both she and Duncan seem to me completely misguided about Levertov and political poetry more generally, almost as if they were unable to see poetry as more than one narrow thing.

Sure, there is bad political poetry, just as there is bad Language poetry.  There is even good writing by people with bad politics (Pound, Eliot, and Stein come immediately to mind).  None of this is in dispute here.  But I find it extremely short-sighted that Levertov was written off by people who set themselves up as aesthetic arbiters, yet were seemingly prompted more by partisanship (be it strictly poetic or possibly political as well) than any real sense of what “good” poetry is or isn’t.  I hope that, as time goes on, work like To Stay Alive will continue to be revisited and reconsidered, against the wave of criticism that has been set up against it.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Billy Mills, The City Itself

Billy Mills’s new collection, The City Itself (Hesterglock Press, 2017), employs compact and intricate soundplay, occasional lyric flashes, documentary historical material, and even personal narrative in order to make an argument about the interplay between urban and natural spaces and human beings’ place in the network of things. Divided into five sections plus a “Coda,” the book might initially seem like a patchwork or amalgamation of unrelated pieces, but an attentive reading quickly reveals that certain overarching themes wend their way throughout: access to housing, humanity’s role(s) in the continuum of the environment, the ephemerality of existence, and language as a material (if imperfect) medium for knowing the world, among others.

The book’s first section, “A Short History of Dominick Street,” incorporates found texts on the subjects of living conditions and poverty in that area of Dublin, where Mills himself was born. Drawing on newspaper accounts and books, this material goes as far back as 1847 to document a series of bread riots, continuing on to focus on the deterioration of this once upscale part of Dublin (which descended into slum tenement housing by the turn of the twentieth century). Mills also incorporates transcripts of Dáil debates on these issues from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In so doing, he sets the stage for wider explorations of the need for home and shelter in what I guess we could term an impersonal universe, or perhaps more to the point a laissez-faire, free-market economy.

This technique of including found materials calls to mind the documentary (and often political) work of American poets in the 1930s-40s: William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead” (in her collection U.S. 1), Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh Memoranda, and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (both Rukeyser and Long before her similarly replicate U.S. congressional transcripts in their works). It is interesting to see Mills do this in an Irish context, at the same time bringing a new perspective to the genre. It is something we are encountering again in contemporary American poetry (Layli Long Soldier’s recent collection WHEREAS being one salient example, and Tyehimba Jess’s Olio also immediately comes to mind), but not so often today in Ireland and Europe as far as I know.

Having thus elaborated an historical backdrop, which anticipates themes and tropes he returns to later in the book, Mills proceeds with a series of imagistic poems titled “Pensato” (I previously reviewed a selection of them, here). These utilize short, clipped lines and are often dense with assonance, slant rhyme, and alliteration. The first piece reads simply, “listen / do not // sing it is enough” — and indeed these are poems worth listening to. One example is:

low in the west
against the almost
dark the finest
waxing crescent (56)
Here, we hear the assonating ‘o’ sound in “low” and “almost”; the near-rhymes of “west,” “against,” and “almost”; “west” picked up by the rhyme with “finest”; the ‘w’-alliteration of “west” and “waxing” connecting the first and fourth lines; vague sound echoes throughout with the harsher ‘k’-‘x’-‘cr’; and finally the ‘ess’ that links “west,” finest,” and “crescent.”

The poem is also very close to a haiku, with (perhaps coincidentally) 17 syllables and the focus on presenting an image from nature that is both simple and revelatory. Often, though, these “Pensato” pieces are closer to early Gaelic poetry, which similarly tends to focus on nature through impactful and concise language. As Mills himself has written in an ecocritical essay titled “Sustainable Poetry,” “From the 8th century haiku-like lyrics of intense perception to the onomastics of the Metrical Dindshenchus, medieval Irish nature poetry concerned itself with the stubborn actuality of things and of the odd relationship between those things and the words used to name them.” Though he refers specifically to the work of Maurice Scully in this regard, Mills brings a similar approach to his own writing, as set forth in this piece:

that there are things
& that these things are
as they are
& nothing is implied
other

everything spins
indeterminate
patterns of light
of stuff a world
explicable & strange (37)
This poem could be said to encapsulate both Mills’s approach to the material world and to poetry/language as a material thing in the world (one could even draw a connection here to the Objectivist poets of the first half of the twentieth century). That the world is “explicable” is at least partly ironic — it is explicable to an extent, but as Mills also writes in “Sustainable Poetry,” the poetry that he aspires to create “asserts that many things are that have never been perceived, and that for most things that are perceived, the perception is imperfect.” And that is okay too; they can simply remain “patterns of light.”

Following “Pensato,” the next section (utilizing prose) is “The Island.” It locates itself in the city of Limerick, combining history with a first-person personal perspective as Mills explores intersections between natural and urban space. Commenting on the dark limestone used to build many of the city’s structures, he writes, “In a sense, the fabric of the old city has grown out of the earth in which it sits” (65-66). This geological linkage between landscape and city is reminiscent of Manuel De Landa’s observation in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997) that “We live in a world populated by structures — a complex mixture of geological, biological, social, and linguistic constructions that are nothing but accumulations of materials shaped and hardened by history. . . . In turn, these synergistic combinations, whether of human origin or not, become the raw material for further mixtures” (25-26).

Like De Landa, Mills as an eco-poet is interested in understanding the ways in which people interact with, think about, and live within the environment. Also coming into renewed focus in this section is the theme of home and our need for livable housing. Part of “The Island” harks back in tone and strategy to the first section, with further reference to Irish government debates and initiatives for public housing schemes. There is a sense of fragility, with both socio-economic inequity and flooding from the River Shannon threatening Limerick’s inhabitants — setting this up, certain lines from the preceding “Pensato” section depict the violent action of a flooded river, with a floating tree trunk seen smashed up against a bridge (e.g. p. 46).

Thus, as the collection progresses, we begin to see its different threads coming together or being revisited in new contexts. The title section, “The City Itself,” builds on Mills’s earlier, tentative thinking about natural versus built environments, now positing the city as a continually evolving idea: “the city itself held in mind // as once it was imperfect & lovely / as it still is & will be” (71). Because it is in a state of endless becoming, both as a city “itself” and as a part of the wider weave of time and landscape, the city is also “never itself” (74) and “not itself” because “it fades / lacks definition / time wavers. . .” (79). Mills’s own perspective similarly moves, like the grass in the breeze, coming to see the city as a liminal space that cannot be completely separated from nature, its litter and detritus mixing with the plant-life that envelopes the city’s outskirts.

In “The City Itself,” Mills also writes that “this human name / is not itself anything world / closes in & night with its sleep” (81). There are multiple meanings here, with the enjambed lines setting up two immediate and related possibilities: that the word “city” cannot wholly contain the ever-changing entity that it denotes, either physically or conceptually; it “is not itself anything.” What then to make of “it is not itself anything world”? As Mills avers in “Sustainable Poetry,” “The physical sciences take [the] view . . . that the world is essentially physical, and that languages, including mathematics, are tools we can use to create increasingly accurate maps of it.” Clearly, then, as a thoroughgoing materialist, he does not aspire after some ideal vision of the city that transcends the grubby physical day-to-day “world.” Rather, the emphasis is on the limitation of our own tools for understanding of the world, and the inability of language to completely encompass it, foregrounding the poet’s work within that awareness.

A third idea is also embedded in those same lines, the “world / closes in & night with its sleep,” which relates to one of the volume’s aforementioned overarching themes, home or having a safe “place” in the world, a habitation. The penultimate section, “On the Bridge,” picks up on all of these ideas, self-reflexively questioning the “I” as subject, observing a heron from a bridge, and undermining the presumption that language can bring over the object, the thing itself: “This is a sentence about a place. Of course, it isn’t” (85). Mills is also conscious of avoiding the tendency to anthropomorphize the heron he observes perching on a rock: “It is tempting to call it patience, but the bird simply has nothing else to do, no concept of anything else to do” (88). Finally, there are two herons flying, one of whom lands on a “branchless trunk” and “Settles. A nest” (89). There is again wonderful, clear imagery here, and perhaps even metaphor (herons settle on their nests in the river, which as we have seen is subject to flooding, just as we make our homes where we can, be it corporation housing or even if necessary in slum tenements).

The two poems of the “Coda” sum up and recapitulate the ideas that Mills has been working with throughout The City Itself. The first focuses on the ephemerality of human civilization and our attempts to carve out a permanent place for ourselves in the universe:

cities visible below
spread in the night the
darkness broken

clusters of light of
energy expended
to banish that which

surrounds us. . . (93)
In other words, the city light we generate to protect ourselves from the “darkness” (of death or harm) are mere flickers. Or, as the end of this poem suggests, our lives and words are merely “carved // in air” or “a shape / on the river / here & then not” (93). It is of course simply the reality of corporeal existence, which Mills renders poignantly yet unsentimentally.

Finally, we are left with “words that name nothing / that sound outside themselves,” along with the images of the birds, the river, and a heron’s eye watching a watcher, itself catching a glimpse of “the city’s curve” (94). There is a hint here at the end of some broader philosophy, one that affirms the materiality of the world and of language while remaining agnostic about first causes — “what happens hidden feed / & flows a source appease / this moment again” (94) — where the sounds this poetry makes in the moment are of equal import to the “message.”

As a multigenre work, Mills’s The City Itself juxtaposes heterogeneous materials in consonance with the De Landaian perspective, creating “synergistic combinations” of modes and sources that in this book “become the raw material for further mixtures.” It is a subtly absorbing reading experience, and as a collection it exemplifies some of the author’s familiar poetic strategies (if indeed you are familiar with his work), while perhaps looking forward to even further “synergies” and “mixtures.”