Wednesday, February 17, 2016

An ABC of Gertrude Stein



Look out! The fifth issue of Lute and Drum just hit the internet, and it's heavy with goodness.  It has new work by D.A. Powell, Monifa Love Asante, Norman Finkelstein, Mary-Jane Holmes, and Patrick Pritchett, and the cover page includes a short film by Max Wilde.  There's also an odd little abecedarian essay of mine called "An ABC of Gertrude Stein."  It begins like this:

A is for Alice, or Artist’s Wife. When I began to learn about Alice B. Toklas, I knew I’d seen her kind before. I grew up as an art school brat in the 1970s, and back in those days when male egos swaggered and feminist consciousness had permeated less thoroughly through the cultural sphere, it was common enough to see, in the shadow of each male would-be genius in paint-spattered denim, a quiet figure, attending to all the banalities of life and the social obligations, a self-abnegating figure who had nevertheless made herself so essential to the artist’s ability to function that he would fall apart if he left her, as he sometimes did. Alice never walked out on Gertrude, but if Ernest Hemingway is to be believed, she made it perfectly clear that she could and she would, and it made Gertrude tremble (see P, below).

B is for Bile, or Biting Remark.  Gertrude Stein was tremendously jealous of the success of other writers, especially if they were of her generation, or if they had once sat at her feet at her salons, and she knew just what to say to hurt them.  Sinclair Lewis only sold so many books because he “is the typical newspaperman and everything he says is newspaper,” she’d remark. Or “Hemingway,” (see H) she’d say, after his books began to sell, “after all you are ninety percent Rotarian.”

C is for Cézanne.  No one cared about Cézanne until 1906, when a posthumous exhibition of his work was held in Paris.  Or almost no one, except for Stein and her brother Leo. Leo in particular saw that Cézanne had set about solving the problem of composition as no one else had; absorbing what the impressionists had taught about color but looking for a way to re-introduce order to the visual plane. He did it by distorting the objects he represented, and using inconsistent perspective. That is: by almost inventing Cubism. Stein hung Cézannes in her salon, and wrote Three Lives while staring at one of them. Picasso came by and liked them too.

D is for Deterritorialization. Gilles Deleuze speaks of deterritorialization as the moving out from a defined sphere, and Stein certainly did that when she broke with mimesis as a principle of writing. But she was also deterritorialized in a more down-to-earth sense: until she arrived in Paris, she belonged nowhere.  She’d lived in hotels and boarding houses and with relatives, and in a big house in Oakland isolated from everyone else, and among people with whom her affluent, cosmopolitan family had nothing in common. When her parents died she connected with no one and nothing except her books and one brother, who confesses that he and Gertrude knew nothing of each other’s inner lives. But bohemian Paris was a special territory, inhabited by refugees from all sort of backgrounds, all united by some concern with art. It was a territory for the deterritorialized, and if there was a home for Stein, it was there that the there would be. 

The whole thing is available at Lute and Drum

If for some obscure reason you feel the need to read more of what I've written about Stein, you might try this little piece in Partisan, "The Meeting that Saved Modernism."


Monday, February 15, 2016

Kafka Sutra World Tour, Spring 2016!



The jets are waiting on the runways, the engines of the motorcade hum in readiness: the Kafka Sutra world tour, 2016 edition, is about to begin!

The first stop: Louisville, Kentucky where, by popular request (okay, by arrangement with the conference organizers) I won't be reading from The Kafka Sutra, but delivering a paper called "Ransom Revised: John Crowe Ransom's Journey from Dialogism to Dogma."  YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO BE THERE! It's at the University of Louisville, Humanities 108, at 2:45 on Saturday, February 20th.  Also on the bill: Mark Scroggins, talking about Geoffrey Hill, and Sally Connolly, discussing elegies written for Ezra Pound.

Then the tour loops back home to Chicago, Illinois, where I'll be reading from The Kafka Sutra side by side with Larry Sawyer and Nathan Hoks, who will read from their new work.  This will be at the Uptown Arts Center (941 West Lawrence Avenue), Friday, February 26, at 8 pm.  If you are one of those deeply hip sorts who only navigates with reference to legendary jazz hangouts, that's a block east of the Green Mill.

Next, the traveling circus heads to Concord, New Hampshire, for a Poetry Month spectacular reading on April 4th at NHTI (details to follow).  

Those who attend all three events will be given a hug of sympathy and a quizzical look.



Saturday, February 06, 2016

Timothy Yu and Ian Duhig Take On Poetics, Politics, and Identity


The Western bourgeoisie has long known its rôle in art is to be abused by the avant-garde; however, groups outside this tradition or class don’t easily see why they or their culture should be insulted or patronized by relatively privileged people. It very often seems to members of such groups to be merely a continuance of abusive patterns rooted deep in society.
That's from a new essay called "To Witness," on poetry's responsibilities, by Ian Duhig.  It's a wide-ranging and thoughtful piece, looking back to Caroline Forché and the poetry of witness, and to contemporary controversy involving the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Claudia Rankine.  Along the way he takes a look at some skeptical statements of my own about the political claims of experimental poetry.  Anything Duhig writes is worth reading on its own merits—but this is particularly notable for our own moment. 

Another piece of writing with intrinsic merit, and with particular relevance to our moment, also came out today: Timothy Yu's book of poems 100 Chinese Silences, which, like Duhig's essay, looks to the intersection of poetics, identity, and politics.  Here's what I wrote for the book jacket:
I can’t remember when I last read a book as necessary, and as wickedly fun, as Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences. Yu responds to, rewrites, and reforms a whole poetic tradition of Western representations of China and the Chinese, from Ezra Pound to Gary Snyder to Billy Collins. Yu wears his learning lightly, and his various parodies, pastiches, and campy retakes on the poetic tradition balance a love of the poetry he’s spent a career studying with a necessary critical edge. Our age demands a re-assessment of old representations of the “mysterious east,” and Timothy Yu has come through with exactly what we need. 100 Chinese Silences has “breakthrough book” written all over it.
Ordering information is available at Les Figues. 

And in other news, my own essay on Charles Simic, trauma, and the Cold War is now online as well as in the Boston Review.