Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Future Blues reviewed in the City Paper

Future Blues is nicely reviewed in today’s City Paper.

The link to the online version is here:

Here is the text:

Potent verse fills Michael S. Begnals fourth collection

The poet ranges from Irish-American themes and empathy for caged animals to appreciations of protopunks the Stooges

by Bill O’Driscoll

Seeking to recreate the world in words, some poets spread their text purposefully across the page, with big horizontal or vertical stretches of white space. In his fourth collection, Future Blues (Salmon Poetry), Michael S. Begnal uses this technique more often than most. But it’s a measure of Begnal’s skill that all that white space never seems an affectation. Rather, its just another way he immerses us in his potent, often challenging voice.

Begnal, 46, was formerly editor of the Galway, Ireland-based literary magazine The Burning Bush. And indeed Future Blues often explores Irish and Irish-American settings and concerns. “Waterworld” limns an Old World street scene and a millennium’s arc of history in a handful of lines (“r e i n c a r n a t i o n back on the agenda”). The stunning “Dead Rabbits” captures in a page the immigrant experience from Potato Famine to third-generation Middle American dissolution. Four other poems are even in Gaelic (and defiantly go untranslated).

“Angles” — about Western European colonists planting “trimmed bushes regimented in rows” in new-settled lands — is built on a delightful bit of Joycean wordplay (“The Angles are coming”). And with “Application for the Provision of Catholic Beverages,” Begnal, employing a barroom stoicism, offers a detailed yet concise allegory on the Church’s defunction.

But there’s lots more to Begnal. His verse can be pleasingly visceral (“the canal flows nearby/ clogged with dead leaves of limitless autumns”), or delve into personal torment, as in “Shade,” about the speaker’s relationship with a man who “sick or dying pretends health / in a black turtleneck.” Begnal includes an “Homage to Li Po,” and indeed displays a special facility for Eastern-inflected poems simply depicting a physical scene in lucid detail — or even, as in “Homage to Allen Kirkpatrick,” merely describing a series of old photos.

There’s also strong political sensibility, with evocations of imprisonment, characterizations of poets as endangered visionaries (“Manifesto”) and deep empathy with animals caged (“Thylacine”) and threatened. “[T]omorrow I will kill the poachers,” the speaker vows in “Primates.”

Other highlights include takes on pop-cultural touchstones. In “Bettie Page,” Begnal goes a bit T.S. Eliot on pinup icon Bettie Page. And a series of poems on the Stooges includes a witty appreciation of their alternate-universe third album, complete with titles like “Fresh Rag” and “Big Time Bum.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Future Blues reviewed in the Galway Advertiser

In today’s (December 6 2012) edition of the Galway Advertiser (Galway, Ireland’s free weekly paper), my friend the poet Kevin Higgins reviews Future Blues, along with our mutual Salmon Poetry press-mate Patrick Chapman’s A Promiscuity of Spines.  The review appears on page 112, and can be read here (click link then scroll down).

Below, transcribed is the part of the text which deals with Future Blues:

Children of The Burning Bush

By Kevin Higgins

Michael S Begnal lived here in Galway for several years and was editor of The Burning Bush literary magazine. Mike was keen to push the boundaries of Irish poetry and impatient with well made but dull lyric epiphanies about family, church, or the field across the road.

Mike’s view has been that too many Irish poets are nice boys and girls with excellent degrees who write acceptable little poems more designed to impress the poet’s parents than do anything else. He’s interested in the wayward strand of Irish poetry typified by the work of the late James Liddy, whose poems are perhaps the place where Allen Ginsberg meets Patrick Kavanagh at his most raucous.

If you think poetry should rhyme and be about girls with flaming red hair going to school barefoot through the fields, then Mike’s new collection Future Blues (Salmon Poetry) is definitely not for you.

In poems such as ‘Dead Rabbits’ Begnal doesn’t take the easy route of obvious autobiography, but instead disturbs the reader with images and makes us think: “mouths stained green with chlorophyll,/ the corpses lined the roadside then// the economy warped in its spasms,/ died or passed to America.”

He really gets into his stride in the longer poems, ‘Homage To Allen Kirkpatrick’ – which runs to four pages – and the Ginsberg style ‘Manifesto’: “WHEREAS/ they want to kill us—/ even now when I stand/ with my back to the window/ it’s like I might get shot/through the blinds.”

Here and there Begnal shows he shares Ginsberg’s weakness for profound sounding, abstract words, such as “transmigration” and “genealogies”. All in all, though, a strong collection. If you like Tom Waits’ stranger albums, then Future Blues may well be the poetry book for you.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Reading at Duquesne University 12/4

I am doing a reading in Pittsburgh at Duquesne University, at their Barnes & Noble café on Forbes Ave., this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 7pm, with the renowned essayist Peter Trachtenberg.  I  will have books for sale and that sort of thing. . . .

Details here and here.

The photo is the Duquesne English Departments very nice display for the event, with a Xmas theme!  See you there.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poem in the City Paper

I have a poem in the Pittsburgh City Paper titled “Uptown, Pittsburgh,” which you can read here.

Shannon Ward review of Future Blues

My friend Shannon Ward has reviewed Future Blues at her blog (November 26, 2012):

Here is the text:

Michael S. Begnal’s Future Blues

One of the pleasures of the writing life is getting to know the other people who gravitate toward that sphere. Writers are fun. They spend prolonged periods holed up with their creations, and then (with the exception of your Dickinsons and Salingers) they emerge from their caves into the bigger world, usually feeling somewhere between mildly disoriented and bat-shit stir-crazy. Excellent company, by my standards.

Among the other great pleasures are getting to watch a friend’s work evolve, to hear the voice in its varied contexts, and to notice the patina building over time. It’s such a long process that (for me, at least) it’s hard to envision the finished form. So I had no idea how delighted I would be when I opened my mail and found my friend Mike Begnal’s poetry collection, Future Blues, right there in my hands—so many of the loose pages we had pored over a few years ago in workshop all bound up in a beautiful, proper book:
Reading these poems feels a little like watching footage of fish in the deep ocean: their forms have evolved for purposes logical—particular to their terrain—but a little mystic somehow too. The images float by strangely, yet there is a sensibility in the negative space between them as well as between the lines and stanzas:
nothing will  be okay
nothing remains pristine for long
stretched out in a dark bed,
the spectacular lights of death
all this terror,
the flying humanoids in the air for real,
the sinister people who want
to come back from the past,
a leafless time
that wind shook.
(“Blues for Tomorrow,” 13-22)
The form and content are raveled together artfully here. The poem’s stanzas hover much like the flying humanoids, in some places vaguely threatening my ability to navigate the current of the page, yet never drowning me in it entirely. Although Begnal steers toward an abstract place, when I arrive, I get the sense that I have been there before, lying sleepless in that room, antagonized by those ghosts. The metaphor triggers an unsettled feeling a little like déjà vu, but the resulting tension is appropriate and complementary to the concept.

These poems not only reckon with the dead, but also commune with them. An informal ode called “Samhain,” for instance, pays tribute to those dead who “are there, in a word or line/ you thought was your own,/ and walk among us to/ night” (30-34). In this poem, Begnal is particularly conscientious of the line, as evidenced by the break between “to” and “night,” suggesting both toward our own demise and tonight, as in on Samhain (the Gaelic festival which begat Halloween.)

The central concept is broader in scope, though, and extends to the idea that we invoke the dead by simply speaking, so many of our words weighed down as they are with history. Fittingly, the poem is dedicated to Mongán, a seventh-century Irish chieftain whose namesake is a semi-divine figure from Gaelic literature. Such ghosts rustle through the lines, and in the introductory stanza especially, the rift between words reflects the rift between worlds:
for all the dead who have spoke before
me        spoke for all the dead who have before
spoke       for all the dead who have before
dead       for all who have spoke before the
I trust in language always.
This is a poetry that makes room for its ghosts. The intentionally muddled syntax of the worried line leaves an impression of language as an inheritance, something that (as those of us who teach freshman composition know all too well) sometimes comes in jumbled variations and barely decipherable waves. Just when the syntax pushes my patience toward its limits though, I am soothed and surprised by that single, simple line, “I trust in language always.”

Friday, November 23, 2012

Future Blues reviewed at Eyewear

There’s a very nice review of Future Blues now up on the Eyewear blog (posted 23 November 2012):

Here is the text:

Jessica Mayhew reviews
by Michael S. Begnal

Beginning at the end of this collection, Michael Begnal notes the poet’s refusal “to fix ourselves/ in time or ink” (‘Manifesto’), and this would serve just as well as an epigram to Future Blues. This is a collection aware of the fragility and harshness of time and language, and a refusal to be rooted in the stasis of either. Begnal’s poetry is fluid and immediate, and his use of textual play allows it to slip from being pinned to the formal.
In ‘Primates,’ Begnal explores the “conception of the word/ HUMAN.” This poem examines a photograph of a group of chimpanzees, comparing it to an early-morning glimpse of the self in a mirror, “a face so secretly and fiercely familiar,” which readers will be able to wryly identify with. However, this poem also goes much deeper than the “3:10 A.M” stunned and squinting eyes, and the knowing nudges of aging; the parallels drawn between poem and chimp highlight the “iron light of sentience,” the harshness of knowledge.

Begnal excels at finding just the right words to root a sentence. ‘Primates’ opens with the line, “His eyes intimate knowledge, this chimpanzee,” the deliberate choice of “intimate” suggesting both an ancestral closeness and the implication of communication, and from this, the poem works around suggestion. The poet guesses – the chimp “maybe the poet of his tribe,” and the speaker’s own “sapience” is “unknown.” This disturbance to the ability of language to express meaning builds to the final stanza:

tomorrow I will kill the poachers
                /I will murder the colonists
                /I will cut down the loggers
                /I will exterminate all the brutes  (‘Primates’)

What seemingly begins as a threatening wish to protect the chimpanzees of the first stanza begins to splinter, reflected in the use of the forward slashes, building to the Heart of Darkness climax. However, in Begnal’s poem there is no Marlow to act as editor and tear off the postscript. The speaker becomes a Kurtz-like figure, and the violent ambiguity of “brutes,” leads the reader back to deeper concerns of role of language as communication.

Darkness and language surface again in ‘Dithyramb.’ The pattern of the urban/ rural couplets are broken when:

...I enter the poem
and am immediately strong-armed
into a dark garage
where there are no shining mirrors,
no strains of deathless song...  (‘Dithyramb’)

The entry of the speaker disrupts the flow of the poem, and yet seems to begin the dithyramb, which is a wild hymn to the ancient Greek god Dionysus. Begnal attacks the urge to define:

they claim they can define
everyone, that I’m this or that,
a maker of cloudy cadence...  (‘Dithyramb’)

An urge which he ultimately defies, setting the poet alone in the urban/rural landscape:

and I’m out along the leaves,
olive-green under the
streetlight lampglow   (‘Dithyramb’)

Begnal uses the juxtaposition of the rural imagery against the streetlights to create a hallucinogenic rebellion which both harks back to the ancient poetic tradition and places it firmly in the contemporary.

The theme of the poet existing outside of the established order is revisited in ‘In an Unknown City, It Seemed.’ There is a distinct modernist atmosphere to the poem, not in form but in content. The poet becomes a flâneur-like figure, roaming through a disorientating city. Temporality is disrupted:

in this part of the city
were buildings
when you looked at them closer
were constructed of Mayan ruins…  (‘In an Unknown City, It Seemed’)

This sense of timeless isolation is shattered when the speaker of the poem encounters another figure. There is a sense of threat at the end of the poem, when another man emerges to see the speaker, “like a priest.”

One of the strong points of this collection is the shift of tone between poems. In ‘The Fluctuations,’ Begnal observes, “death & loss in your twisted black guts like shit,/ in the stark stochastic scald.” This sits alongside ‘At the Cliff,’ where death/ time sits in contrast, “time wilts and willows,/ residue builds sweet on the tongue.” Here, the softer assonance gives a much gentler impression of time ebbing and flowing, rather than the harsh sounds of the former. Throughout Future Blues, Begnal consistently compliments the themes of his poems with a studied ear to the sounds they make, which is apt for a collection at least partly inspired by music. This attention to the aural is particularly effective in ‘Bettie Page.’ The classic monochromatic pin-up image is created in the third stanza:

black her hair
and pale white skin,
the classic black/white
“raven” “porcelain”   (‘Bettie Page’)

The sound echoing through “black/classic,” and the half-rhyme of “skin/ porcelain” draws the reader into a poem which centres heavily on the notion of darkness, not just in colour (or lack of), but also in tone. This builds to the final proper stanza, in which decay is emphasised through consonance, and the final rhyme acts as an evocation of the pin-up herself:

and clay collects in the cracks below the window
and the furniture begins to show its age –
Bettie Page,
            Bettie Page,
                        Bettie Page  (‘Bettie Page’)

“Sexless” is scored through in this poem, an ironic nod to the epigram from Bettie Page, “I had less sex activity those seven years in New York than I had any other time in my life.” Begnal’s use of typography and textual play works well throughout the collection. In Dead Rabbits, he introduces coloured print with the word “red,” emphasising the visceral nature of the poem. An image of a horn is added to Horn, further breaking the text and bringing a visual element to a poem focusing on sound. This typographic play could be used more often to bring more of an impact.

Future Blues ends with a ‘Manifesto,’ summing up the poet’s intents and beliefs. This collection flits between deaths – death of the body, death of language, death of the self – and in this movement is the escape of expression. In ‘Manifesto,’ Begnal writes, “for death is stasis/ and poetry moves everywhere.” This collection looks to a mythic past, even as it passes through the present. In this poem, as in the others, there is a lack of concluding full stops, which serves to emphasise Future Blues as a continuous, supple body of poetry. 

Jessica Mayhew is a British poet, and reviews regularly for Eyewear.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Avant-Post on Goodreads

This by way of Litteraria Pragensia Books in Prague:

“As part of LPB’s tenth anniversary, we’re making a wide range of titles from our backlist available online via Goodreads, for you to download or read for free. Check out Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions, featuring Johanna Drucker, Michael S. Begnal, Lisa Jarnot, Ann Vickery, Christian Bök, Robert Archambeau, Mairéad Byrne, R.M. Berry, Trey Strecker, Keston Sutherland, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Robert Sheppard, Bonita Rhoads, Vadim Erent, Laurent Milesi, Esther Milne...”

My chapter in this book, “The Ancients Have Returned among Us,” is a study of recent Irish poetry, particularly its “experimental” strands.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interview on WYEP’s Prosody

Recently I was interviewed for radio station WYEP’s poetry show, Prosody.  The show will air this Saturday, November 3, at 6:00 A.M Eastern time.  Yes, that’s 6:00 A.M.  Unfortunately, the poetry show is shunted into a crazy time-slot, but if for some reason you happen to be up at that hour on Saturday morning, you can listen live, either on the airwaves or by streaming it through the internet.  Start with this page, and there’s a link there to their live feed.

In the interview, I talk a lot about the new collection, Future Blues, and read poems from that book and the earlier Ancestor Worship.  If you can’t listen live, the episode will eventually be available to download as a podcast, though I understand there is a short delay in getting those podcasts up.  So, poetry on the radio at 6:00 A.M.  (That’s 11:00 A.M. Irish time, though.)

UPDATE: You can listen to the podcast here:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review of Lavorato

I have a review of Wayworn Wooden Floors by Canadian poet Mark Lavorato up on Todd Swift’s Eyewear blog.  It was a tough review to write, in a way.  Lavorato clearly has a lot of skill as a writer, and this collection aims for mass acceptance.  The author seems to be under the impression, though, that the best way to achieve it is by being “accessible.”  But, for me anyway, as the book pretends to operate in ignorance of recent developments in the field of poetry, as well-wrought as it is, it ultimately ends up missing the mark.  I explain why in greater detail here.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Reading for the Butterjoint Variety Show

If you are in Pittsburgh: I will be reading a few poems tomorrow (16th October) at this new live variety show, the Butterjoint Variety Show, at the bar of Legume Bistro, North Craig St., from 9pm.  Aside from me reading poems, there will be blues from Leslie Addis and the Rusty Nails, “klezmer jazz” from the Average Beasts, lo-fi blues from John Cihon, and a comedian.  Promises to be a fun time. . .

Sunday, September 30, 2012

John Menesini, endo

John Menesini, in many ways a quintessentially Pittsburgh poet, may have recently moved to New York City, but his latest collection endo (Six Gallery Press, 2011) still takes in the ’Burgh in poems like “Pittsburgh Khole,” “Larryville,” and “Blue Heart.”  That said, Menesini’s work has always looked beyond, beyond what place might predominate.  Some other standouts for me include “Rebirth of Pan,” “These Broken Flowers,” and the impressionistic “PGH Winter.”  And there’s much more still, including a number of sustained longer pieces.  I won’t do a full “review” this time because I worked on the book myself (did the layout of text).  But I know what I like, and good poetry is good poetry, and endo is very good.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Interview on Burdock Radio

I was interviewed by Keith Gaustad on his Burdock Radio show on Riverwest Radio, Thursday, 23 August 2012.  The interviewed is archived and can be accessed here:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Future Blues

My new collection, Future Blues, is now out from Salmon Poetry.  It is available on your other book-selling websites too, and probably at least order-able from most actual bookshops.  But it’s always best to go direct to the publisher:

Thank you for your support.


ISBN: 978-1-907056-90-1
Page Count: 86
Cover Artwork: Kyle Fitzpatrick, “Theater” (mixed media on canvas, 95” x 96”, 2007),

Michael S. Begnal’s Future Blues is both a progression of and a break with his previous collection, Ancestor Worship. Inasmuch as any poet’s work is a continuing narrative defined by nothing more or less than chronological time, Future Blues is the collection that follows its immediate predecessor and so cannot help but be aware of it. Yet, as Begnal has written, “The best musicians, writers, and artists for me are the ones who, either steadily over time or perhaps in radical bursts, change their style or approach – each new work in part an effort to surpass the previous.” The Irish Literary Supplement described Ancestor Worship as “an attempt at reconstructing an obscured heritage.” While traces of such an impulse inevitably recur, Future Blues hurtles forward seeking out “new images and modes of being” (as one poem puts it), even as our collective future – death – looms.

Future Blues, in its title, lashes Irish poetry past and future into alliance – a desperate, daring act. Is that a space between “Future” and “Blues” or a caesura? Whichever, it offers a narrow stage for the uneasy demimonde of the present, where the Ghosts of Irish Poetry Past and Future meet, and merge. This is a poetry of trace and gesture, of tree and leaf, of light and surfaces, of haze and mark, drink, decline and persistence; a poetry of disjunctiveness which swells notably into cohesive poems in English and Irish – cohesive but still textured; a poetry of anomalies, stitched across time and culture from Mongán to Laurence Sterne to Frank O’Hara to Ron Asheton, often fragile, always intelligent, bristling with formal spice. Mairéad Byrne

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sarah Bennett’s Article on the Irish Avant-Garde

A proto-avant-garde Irish poet
Sarah Bennett has published an interesting article on contemporary Irish avant-garde poetry in the online journal Wave Composition.  Titled “Love, Sorrow and Joy: Aubade for the Irish Poetry Avant-Garde,” the article traces the development of Irish experimental/avant/non-mainstream Irish poetry from MacGreevy though Devlin and Coffey, through the Sixties (The Lace Curtain journal and New Writers’ Press), through to the turn of the century and Wild Honey Press, up to the present.  I’m glad to see this, and it reminds me of the kind of work I have engaged in myself, with The Burning Bush and in an essay I wrote a number of years ago now (“The Ancients Have Returned Among Us: Polaroids of 21st C. Irish Poetry”) in the Louis Armand-edited Avant-Post anthology, that is similar to Bennett’s (I don’t imagine she’s seen it, though, so not to suggest she is in any way influenced by it).  Bennett references me in her article as “Poet, blogger and critic Michael Begnal, committed to the promotion of experimental writing in Ireland. . .”, and I am flattered.

It’s also nice to be kept up to date — I was not aware of Graham Gillespie’s collection Love, Sorrow and Joy (which is grandiosely subtitled “A New Voice in Irish Avant-Garde Poetry” and, strangely for a first collection, includes an interview with the author himself) (this book being the source of Bennett’s ironic title).  Bennett criticizes it as conservative and notes that “It’s difficult to conceive of an avant-garde — Irish or otherwise — in which Gillespie could rightly be accommodated.”  I can’t comment on this, as I’ve yet to read the book, but I’ve always been a fan of such critical jousting, and it will be interesting to see for myself.

Bennett rightly attacks Fintan O’Toole’s assertion that the work of Paul Durcan represents “an instance of the Irish avant-garde breaking into the mainstream.”  Durcan has never been an avant-garde poet, and personally I find his alternately jokey/cranky speaker persona to be merely irritating.  But, that is just my opinion.  Bennett, in any case, is percipient in observing the difficulty, due to socio-historic circumstances, in even approaching the mainstream v. avant-garde debate in Irish literature.

Debates on the definition of “avant-garde”/“experimental” writing rage continually.  Bennett briefly delineates a number of other critics’ positions, seeming to gravitate toward Alex Davis’s.  Still, I always wonder if a more specific critical context is necessary in a piece such as this — might she venture her own definition of the Irish avant-garde?  But then, arguing for this definition over that could be an article unto itself, perhaps a book, and so in this case I like that Bennett just gets on with it, knowing that we get her drift, and engages with the work in a way that reminds us why we ought to read and keep reading it.

Wave Composition as a whole, by the way, looks to be a worthwhile journal.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Poem for a James Liddy Book, at Lúnasa

Poem for a James Liddy Book, at Lúnasa

Book reviews must be analytical,
but I don’t want to be analytical now,
I just want to say that I like it,

Why do you like it?

Because of how it makes me feel

How does it make you feel?

Not like prose (even when there is prose)
but like at Lúnasa
sad and celebratory,
a wave of something anti-logical
in the chest and/or bowel

Why is it sad?

Because James in this book
knows of his death, the lights of dawn
as the débauché loses consciousness,
vomits and the party goes black,
the body cannot keep up
with the convulsions
and the amber liquid finally gags him—
and thus, because James is my friend

Why is it celebratory?

Because as he imparts
in numerous languages—
Silver English, Silver Irish,
Silver Latin among them—
until the blackout,
drink makes us feel good
and our friends are here,
they are naked
and we are penetrating/licking
each other
and could fall in love

What swings from side to side?

I think it must be the parts of the body,
but also that when we reach one side
we move to “the other”

What is “the other”?

Like when you gather berries
on a hilltop
and bring them to the bonfire
and someone hands you a bottle
and you take a drink
and you begin to speak
in cadences art-technologic,
which are taken up
with fire smoke,
and the beings,
who are real by the way,*
say “hi” back to you,
and in the morning you proceed
around the well
in sunwise circles,
     in ludic laughter

*Read the book


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review of Kate Behrens

My review of Kate Behrens’s collection The Beholder (Two Rivers Press, 2012) appears on the Eyewear site (link to review here). Behrens is a British poet who I had not heard of before.  Maybe the name sounded familiar, but that is it (and I think I am imagining even that).  I was happy to read something so good when I wasn’t really expecting to.  In the review, I kind of react to the description of the book given in some of its back cover material, versus how the book actually read to me.  I guess I could have ended up writing more about cover blurbs in general, or done some analysis of them, but that is perhaps an essay for another time.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Burning Bush 2, No. 3

Photo: The Burning Bush 2 site
Though I dont have any work in it myself this time around, the new issue of the online journal The Burning Bush 2 includes a poem by David Stone dedicated to me. My regards to Stone. The poem, titled “My Ancestral Memory,” has to be a reference to Ancestor Worship. The whole issue (number 3), edited by Alan Jude Moore, is well worth checking out and can be read starting here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

xxx ALL AGES xxx, The Boston Hardcore Film

The first documentary solely about the early 80s Boston hardcore scene, xxx ALL AGES xxx (2012), directed by Drew Stone, is undoubtedly the definitive chronicle.  While the earlier film American Hardcore (2006) touched on Boston, xxx ALL AGES xxx has the scope to be much more in-depth about it.  It’s loaded with all kinds of great stills from the era, rare video and music, and interviews with most of the people involved.  I really liked the montage that was made of the outtakes from the photo shoot of SS Decontrol’s The Kids Will Have Their Say album cover, for example.  The splicing between archival and more recent footage of bands like Jerry’s Kids and DYS was also a clever touch.  Getting into the personal interview clips, my initial reaction was how weird it is to see everybody looking so old.  It was the same when I first watched American Hardcore, but it’s five further years on now (and no doubt I look old myself, then).  I never went to Boston “back in the day,” though I did see many Boston bands in other cities at the time — SSD, DYS, The F.U.’s, Gang Green among them — and knew most of the major figures from album covers, fanzine photos, and interviews.  So seeing it all again in this new, encapsulated form, with inside stories and so on, was fun if also weird, similar to the experience of first watching American Hardcore (which is xxx ALL AGES xxx’s inescapable antecedent).

There are a number of possible approaches to historicizing something that happened within living memory, and director Stone has chosen the “talking head” model, letting the people who were there reminisce or discuss at will.  Interviewer questions are rarely heard and the subjects are rarely challenged.  There is no narrator.  This makes for a grassroots vibe that in a way reflects the original context itself, a completely underground, self-created scene that was built from the ground up, a truly alternative community that did not rely on any kind of “official” support or affirmation (except on the odd time when an established club would book a hardcore show — though, as the film points out, the ensuing chaos usually meant that it was also the last time).  The problem, at least for me (and this review, if it’s even a review, is admittedly a completely subjective take), is that there is something of a lack of critical perspective.  Certainly, Stone does his best to steer the interviewees down particular avenues of self-criticism, as when Springa confesses the moment when he knew that SSD had gotten lame. (The trajectory of the film inevitably follows that of American Hardcore, since the trajectory is what really happened.  Here also, then, the turn toward heavy metal is depicted as retrospectively comedic, with some hilarious footage of SSD’s final show in LA and Springa trying to be David Lee Roth or something.)

John Sox briefly talks about how some people didn’t get The F.U.s because they supposedly didn’t have the same sense of humor as them, and so they often reacted badly to things they said.  In the absence of follow-up questions, however, one wonders if Sox means that they were just kidding about their politics and never meant any of their right-wing sentiments, that it was all merely a joke.  Or were they at least semi-serious about it?  I didn’t take the F.U.’s lyrics wholly as a joke at the time, though obviously they were reacting to left-wing political punks and the whole Maximum Rock’n’Roll thing.  Maybe they were kidding all through their career, but this uninterrogated Sox segment renders the story unclear.  Of course, the film assumes some knowledge on the part of the viewer, and perhaps it seeks to reproduce the ambiguity that The F.U.’s themselves put forward at the time.  Still, isn’t a documentary’s role to fill in the gaps?

And then there is the issue of gender politics in the Boston scene.  What a hornet’s nest.  A couple of people, men, discuss how they basically purposely attacked girls who would try to slam in the pit.  Why?  Jake Phelps describes his fuck-you, antisocial attitude, but doesn’t come off as any more enlightening on this today than he would’ve been as a teenage thrasher. A couple of women react to the situation, but only for a few seconds of screen time, as if the included response were merely obligatory.  There’s obviously a lot more to say here.  Sure, the physicality of the pit means there was inherently going to be some degree of biological hierarchy, but why the need to be so overt and extreme about it, to actually specifically push women out?  Christine McCarthy suggests that most or many of the guys in the scene were afraid of girls and weren’t getting laid — so what was going on?  I don’t really care about these guys’ sex lives, to be honest, but the film itself brings it up, only to leave it simply hanging out there with no real explanation.  Why the need to be so anti-female?  Basic psychology suggests some deeper issues, but no one ventures a guess, and most of the principals are not asked. (The closest we get is as the credits roll, theres a brief snippet of Choke saying that he never hit on girls at the time because I respected them too much.)

For that matter, I’ve always wanted to know why the Boston scene on the broader level was so militant about everything to begin with.  For example, why did these kids latch on to straight edge in such an intense way?  Jon Anastas talks about the anti-drug thing as being a reaction against hippie parents, but I thought guys like Al Barile and Choke were more from old-school working-class backgrounds (maybe I’m wrong?).  In American Hardcore, Chris Doherty mentions that a lot of kids in the scene were from broken homes, but there’s no background stuff like that here.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still an important and worthwhile film, but I thought it could have gone deeper into what drove these people and why Boston was in retrospect such the strange and unique scene that it was.  So for me, as much as I enjoyed it, there was perhaps of a bit too much unquestioned nostalgia and not enough analysis.  This was clearly a conscious directorial choice, however, and so Stone’s work excels within the parameters he has set for himself. (more below this photo of SSD....)

SSD (Photo: Bruce Rhodes)
The other restriction imposed on xxx ALL AGES xxx is the non-appearance of Al Barile, founder of SSD, and in many people’s eyes the founder of the whole Boston scene.  This, though, was not the director’s fault, as he apparently tried hard to get Al in.  Alas, as Mike Gitter has written elsewhere, “His absence and frequent mentions throughout xxx ALL AGES xxx make him, in many ways the film’s key character — through omission.”  Al, alive and well, is like a ghost here, spoken about in the past tense, forever young in photos, but unable to take up the opportunity to shape his own legacy.  I personally think Al should have appeared, but I can also understand the lack of desire to stroll down memory lane.  In any case, he clearly did not oppose the film itself, as SSD’s music is heard throughout.

To sum up, despite my criticisms, xxx ALL AGES xxx is an eminently watchable and worthwhile project.  A note about the DVD — the packaging is very well-executed, with the basic black-and-white graphics echoing Bridget Burpee’s layouts for the XClaim! Records releases (especially the first SSD album).  Also included are a number of special features/interviews.  I will say that I have not yet watched the film with Stone’s commentary playing, so perhaps some answers to my questions lie there.  Either way, I highly recommend this if you have any interest at all in the U.S. hardcore scene of the early 80s.  Boston to a large extent distilled and intensified many of its dynamics, just as it may also have enacted them according to its own rather idiosyncratic conventions.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Black Flag: My Rules/My War

Black Flag, fall 1982. Photo: Glen E. Friedman
A hot June night returning to the 1982 Demos, the Black Flag material that should’ve been an album but wasn’t, and the last recorded material with Chuck Dukowski on bass I believe.  I’ve read that the reason Greg Ginn ousted Dukowski from the band was somehow to do with his playing, but he sounds pretty good to me here.  And his “My War” lyrics are some of the band’s best. My favorite lines from “My War” are, “Tell me that I’m wrong/ Try to sing me your ego’s song/ You’re one of them!” There was also the short, poem-like version of the lyrics that appeared in the My Rules photozine, with Glen E. Friedman’s shot (above) of the five-piece lineup which included Dez, Chuck, and Chuck Biscuits (a great drummer) under a palm tree.

It is too bad that band didn’t record a “real” album then. The My War album that we have is great (and the original lyrics survive), but I think the ’82 lineup with Dukowski and Biscuits would have made an even better one. As it is, in terms of recording history, sound quality, and actual album releases, the Damaged album is probably the most fully realized Black Flag record that exists.  I got Damaged shortly after it came out in 1981.  For me, the signature song on that album is “Rise Above” (rather than the oft-cited, catchy, but lighter pop-culture parody “TV Party,” in retrospect a complete anomaly for the band).  After the anthem-like choruses of “Rise Above,” “Spray Paint,” and “Police Story” on side one, side two gives way to Henry Rollins’s guttural screams on “Depression,” “Damaged II,” “Damaged I,” etc.  Damaged embodies two different responses to late twentieth-century American society, the transcendence of “Rise Above” and the violent animality of “Damaged I.” At the time, however, it just was what it was; I don’t know exactly what language I would’ve used to describe it.

It’s fashionable now to say that Henry was the least of the four singers.  Even he himself claims that the First Four Years compilation is the group’s best work.  But, although the earlier records are indisputably great, for me Henry really defined Black Flag (after Ginn’s guitar playing).  The first of many times I saw them was May 30th 1982, in Mt. Vernon, New York.  It was the tour with Emil on drums, the tour from which the American Hardcore footage of Henry punching some asshole in thecrowd is taken.  At the Mt. Vernon show, I remember Henry suddenly tackling a guy who’d gotten onstage, and sort of wrestling him down; he was completely wild at that time it seemed.

I liked the violent aspect of Black Flag shows at the time.  On the whole, it sprung out of a primal but intelligent response to the frustrations of being subject to a kind of oppression (wow) emanating from the surrounding culturea feeling also, and perhaps more succinctly, encapsulated lyrically on side two of the Six Pack 7” in the songs “I’ve Heard It Before” and “American Waste,” or in “My Rules” from side two of the TV Party single.

Another thing about that 1982 show — the band appeared onstage with varying lengths of hair.  Henry had a scruffy beard.  I and most of the audience apparently still expected them to be sporting skinheads, the emblematic look of the hardcore scene at the time.  I actually overheard somebody wondering out loud, “Who are these guys?” — not realizing it was Black Flag.  Even at that early time, though, I dug the fact that they weren’t trying to live up to expectations or to some standardized image (even a punk image) in their lives or music. One of the lines in “My Rules” goes, “I don’t like anybody who’s got all the answers for me.”

And with the elapse of time, it is that, and their music that lasts.
[A while back I was asked by Stewart Ebersole, editor of the forthcoming book Barred for Life, to write a short piece on Black Flag. The book eventually went in a different direction and it wasn’t used. The above is largely based on what I wrote for that project. The book, by the way, will be great!]

Monday, June 11, 2012

Adam Fieled, Equations

For more than a decade now, certain critics and writers have declared postmodernism at an end, perhaps most famously Linda Hutcheon, who writes in The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. (2002), “Let’s just say: it’s over.” How to describe what follows, then? In her 2007 article “Interconnections in Blakean and Metamodern Space,” Alexandra Dumitrescu sees William Blake as the forerunner of a contemporary mode that is anti-ideological and based on human connections, which supplants the postmodern: “Having lost its centrality, the postmodern world is doomed to fragmentarism, and, in the absence of anything to ensure its cohesion, to brittling off. Yet, the connections between individuals, the ability of humans to create emotional, social, and theoretical networks, and to relate across ontological levels, may prevent the race from falling into the abyss of meaninglessness.”  In their 2010 article “Notes on Metamodernism,” Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker claim that “metamodernism appears to find its clearest expression in an emergent neoromantic sensibility.”

Of course, whether or not postmodernism is truly over is debatable. Certainly, many of its breakthroughs, especially those that foreground language as a medium, must remain valid.  But as Vermeulen and van den Akker suggest, “new generations of artists increasingly abandon the aesthetic precepts of deconstruction, parataxis, and pastiche in favor of aesth-ethical notions of reconstruction, myth, and metaxis. These trends and tendencies can no longer be explained in terms of the postmodern.” So who are the post-postmodern (or metamodern) poets? A blurb on the Lulu site where Adam Fieled’s collection Equations (Blue & Yellow Dog Press, 2011) is available tells us that his “imperatives are enacted in solitude, as the poet takes a scalpel to the body of his experiences. Adam Fieled’s Equations is a vivid manifestation of a new, scrupulous American consciousness. It is the effort of a poet to elevate the carnal with intellect, and to create a memorable chiasmus between them. The frigidity of postmodern verse is replaced by a new romanticism, that is not romantic. That is the central endeavor here. . .” Perhaps then, Fieled’s work can be understood in the metamodern context, moving as it may though Romantic, modern, and (even still) postmodern modes.

Equations is a series of prose (prose-poetry?) ruminations on the sexual escapades of a young writer/academic. It seems we can safely say that this material is autobiographical, as a note at the end of the book thanks the city of Philadelphia, “where most of the action transpired.”  In an interview, Fieled claims that his work integrates “narrative, emotion, and sexuality into experimental poetry. I feel that I arrived at a moment in which things had reached a peak of extreme dryness — I was taught that open affectivity and eroticism were crimes. It’s been my pleasure to rebel against these conventions (though I respect the work my predecessors have done) in my own little way. I also have very avidly sought to include a biographical element in my work.”  Ironically, the decision to rebel against these longstanding postmodern attitudes he says was prompted by Lyn Hejinian, who in a recent essay (“Wild Captioning,” 2011) worries that post-postmodernism is conservative and retrograde: “One wonders if post-postmodernism might not suck everything back; it’s impossible to know what that might look like.” I think she’s wrong here — if anything, the present, post-postmodern zeitgeist responds to financial meltdown and an ever-growing corporate dominance in politics and society, rather than some post-9/11 desire for security (as Hejinian suggests). Indeed, the aforementioned Fieled blurb begins, “A recession has hit America at such an angle that everything has been called into question.”

Hejinian might wonder if she’s created a monster in Fieled, however, given his ubiquitous assertion of an unquestioned conception of self in this book and around the internet. In postmodernism, the construction of the self is usually to be questioned. Fieled has given that up, and his assertion of self through “open affectivity and eroticism” is quite to the fore in Equations.  It’s also known that Bukowski is one of his influences, and his modus operandi is something like Bukowski if the latter were a turn-of-the-twenty-first-century avant-gardist. I laud him for this, but on a subjective level I found it was often difficult for me to “relate” to the pieces in this book. Where Bukowski comes across as funny and sympathetic despite his flaws, the protagonist of Equations is self-serious.  The book reads as a record of the sexual conquests of a slightly insecure yet nonetheless ambitious twenty- (and later thirty-) something aesthete. That is not to say there is no self-reflection here, because there is.  It just means that some of the book is hard to take before the eventual revelations happen. This may be the intended effect. Bear with me.

For example, though, in section 12 the protagonist (again, I guess we have to say it’s pretty much Fieled) describes himself as “a young Poundian firebrand,” and together with his one-off sex partner who is an “Emily Dickinson, but with sex appeal,” “We are two geniuses.” The act is described thusly: “When I enter her, Wendy becomes a symbol of my own artistic potency, and I of hers.” This seems to be completely serious. In section 27, he “begins a life spent in bars,” which helps him to foster “all those street level skills” that he must consciously “master.” What works for Bukowski is partly that he portrays himself as a down-and-out, skid-row drunk, whereas it’s hard to make the figure of a self-important PhD student and “man-whore” (section 37), who haunts sceney dive bars looking for artsy and/or hipster chicks to seduce, into quite as sympathetic a hero as Bukowski’s Chinaski. Again, of course this is subjective.  Where a work so greatly depends on the personality of the narrator, it’s always possible that someone else will find him/her quite captivating.

Alright, I know I’ve been a bit harsh here. It takes guts to expose oneself in this way, and it seems that Fieled has gone all in with this confessional exercise; he really does (metaphorically) “take a scalpel to the body of his experiences” in Equations.  That hardcore autobiographical approach had been missing in the “dryness” of late twentieth-century trends, and it’s intriguing to see it coming back in some new way. But what I find most interesting about this book, perhaps, is that it can be read almost as a response to St. Augustine’s Confessions (one of the first truly confessional literary works).  Thus it not only harks back to Bukowski and earlier the Beats, not only back to the Romantics, but all the way back to the ancients.

Where Augustine obviously sees his former debauched life as “sinful,” the lesson that Fieled draws is rather different. He does finally admit the possibility of love, but after a period of monogamy and much thought, he understands that he will most likely return to his life as a sensualist (in one way or another); there is “the realization that it must happen again” (section 58). What he finally decides, in the concluding section, is that “it’s time for me to jump into some fray again.” However, as with Alex at the end of the British edition of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, age brings some kind of change. Here, at the very least, “I’m too old to just hit the bars and clubs like I used to.” While, according to the narrator/Fieled, “the deepest truths are social” and “these miracles usually transpire in a sexual context” (here he’s almost an anti-Augustine), there is this final admission: “I have learned in writing this book that this does not have to be the case.” Art (or at least the artistic process), then, still informs life as much as vice-versa. Equations, then, in any case, is art that, in the words of Dumitrescu, seeks to avoid “the abyss of meaninglessness.”