Saturday, January 22, 2011

Beneath the Chickenshit Mormon Sun by Bruce Embree

I've posted this before, on a depressing day probably just like this one. This poem makes me feel better. That's all I have to say on that.

It turned out worse than I thought
The champion defended his title
then Eldridge Cleaver came on
to talk about his reasons for becoming a member
of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Grandma and I damn near fell out of our chairs
Went to town and got crazy drunk
Came back home, called you long-distance
after cruising and drooling Mainstreet again

This is my last wish and love poem
It is as follows
Want to hold the wake at noon with plenty of acid and rum
No friends and relatives
Ghost music by Hendrix and the Byrds
drowning all sound
as you fuck me to dust
beneath the chickenshit Mormon sun.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Paul Blackburn and Sexism

How does one respond to sexism in poets whose work seems to be filled with it, like Blackburn?

The quick answer most people would give is: ignore it. Yet here I am, reading more and more, and yes, enjoying, the supposedly sexist work of Paul Blackburn and wondering why there isn't much if any criticism of his important work in the late 50s and 60s, when he served as gatekeeper and recorder of many readings which have helped establish the avant-garde presence and reading scene in New York as well as given us great historical insight into the poets associated at that time with the New York scene.  And of course I'm thinking about his poems, which kept him in the middle of things as a talent in his own right. It's not difficult, unfortunately to see why he's not read, and that makes me sad. His poetry is worth more than a few cursory footnotes to the era.

I've come to the conclusion now, after dipping into the collected poems at length, but randomly, and reading four or five of his individual books, that the majority of his work isn't sexist (unless every's man work is, which is another question entirely)but the places where it is sexist tower over every other consideration of the poems, which is really, really too bad.

In his 1968 book In* On* Or About the Premises, it takes only six poems before he sets readers back with a poem narrating through what, today, we could only describe as rape, though I'm sure Blackburn didn't think of the poem in this way. In an introduction to Parallel Voyages, a posthumous edition of some Blackburn poems the critic, poet, and friend of Blackburn Clayton Eshleman gives us an interesting way to read through this sexism, though it doesn't ultimately convince.
However, the facts, according to the poetry, seem to indicate that Paul’s sense of creative worth was exceptionally contingent upon sexual acceptance, very overtly in the case of women, and very covertly in the case of men. His antennae were lust-sensitive, and many poems are organized explicitly around an anonymous or intimately-known person who aroused him. As he approached his 40s, this point of imaginative ignition increasingly misfired, or did not spark at all, to the point that the pain of loving (himself as well as others) appears to have engulfed sexual gratification. In the chasm that began to appear as this single power gave way and divided was a morass of unresolvable childhood unhappiness.(all Eshleman quotes from
Well, without entering into Blackburn's psychological well-being and deciding to empathize or not with his life and outlook, I guess there's no way to read past the sexism, yeah? Bad childhood or no, a sexist is still a sexist, a poet is still a poet, but he or she has more complex reasons for their sexism, fair enough; it doesn't forgive them the point. But the Eshleman essay gives us a further nugget, in addition to the bad-childhood/bad marriage explanation.
[It] is worthwhile to think about what looked at superficially appears to be a heavy load of machoism in Blackburn’s poetry. Women are often signed, or identified, as sexual targets, and his seeming dependence on women for self-affirmation empowers them with overwhelming, sometimes menacing, psychic size.
This is another argument entirely. He's not sexist solely because of his bad childhood or unresolved identity issues, he's sexist because he's afraid of women. The logical extension of this theory might explain it all. Blackburn needs to prove his male power and rather than act on those power impulses or issues he relegates them to his poetic imagination and lets fly there, in the safe zone between poet and persona. This might work as explanation, too.

It could also be that his discussion of matters sexual (and sexist) harkens back to Blackburn's eye for detail: simple revelation of what he sees in himself and his relationships, which is part of the final points Eshleman makes.
A third kind of sexuality, and certainly the dominant one for the first half of Blackburn’s writing career, is an admiration and tender respect for what might be thought of as femininity in all forms. This motif is sounded again and again, as contact with women, animals (generally cats—the occasional dogs seem to indicate a negative male presence), and plants, and appears to envision a feminine principle as the force that provides the world with growth and beauty. When Blackburn is under the sway of this persuasion (generally in his apartment, in contrast to out on the street or in the New York City subway, he is fair-minded, masculine, and extremely sensitive.

It's true that the sexism present in Blackburn's poems became more present the older he got and the more cynical he got about his failed relationships, but we might not have seen that progression at all were it not for Blackburn's willingness to put himself on the page knowing full well the effect he might have on his readers, men and women alike. Given the time frame in which much of his work was written (the beginning tremors of the feminist movement and the turbulent 1960s) I'm pretty sure he was made aware of his shortcomings in this area, though I don't know that for a fact. How could you be unaware of the profound shift in cultural values, in New York City in 1968 especially, as centered as he was around the poetry scene?

I've come to no conclusion after all these words, sadly. I see the point: Blackburn is offensive to many people. I believe they rightly take up the cudgel against his sexism but ignore his considerable gifts and presence in poetic history, and 'canon editors' do the same by ignoring the large body of work in favor of lesser lights from the same time period. I urge them to rethink this position. In terms of his lineation alone, how the breath-line works in his poems, Paul Blackburn should be read. Whether he's read for the right reasons or not, I believe it's wrong to ignore him entirely, even if his life and point of view make it easy to do so. In youth we ignore our fathers only to find out later on that what they had to say was worthwhile in ways we had no recourse to know in our youths. I believe it's time to learn and know more about Blackburn, and to cement his place in the canon not just of the avant-whatevers, but in all of poetry.

A good first step would be another edition of his Collected (mistitled for sure, as it includes only 500 or so of the 1200+ poems Blackburn wrote) if only because the current book is organized chronologically, apart from the way Blackburn organized them into his published books. Then, maybe someone could take up a biography. Right now, as his persona non grata status remains quo, we're doing poetic history a grave disservice by not including his work, and adding further insult by not giving readers sufficient tools (like a true full Collected) to review. With these tools in hand, readers could decide for themselves how to read him.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Any Reviews?

Anyone noticed any reviews of Redneck Poems out there, or have one planned? I sent out maybe 5-10 copies to various places and people,and would like to remind potential reviewers and other people that they can get the (FREE!) nicely formatted e-chapbook by visiting either of these two URLS:

or get a cheap print copy ($5.50) by visiting Magcloud.

If you like rural-based poems of sex, violence or shelling peas, or the visceral feel of mud in your toes, you might like this little chapbook. Here's part of what one reviewer liked--

from Rene Schwiesow at the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene blog:
Edge. Rusty Barnes work will walk you out to the edge, ask you to look over, and consider whether you feel your stomach drop or your eyes water as you read. This is the real thing. Barnes grew up in rural Appalachia and his words are shot through with those Appalachian roots.
Or you can check What to Wear During an Orange Alert

The term "redneck" has many different meanings. There is the humorous Jeff Foxworthy parody, but there is also the hard-working rural farmer and fresh air image that is tied a little closer to reality. I'm not sure why Rusty chose that word to represent this collection of poems, but I feel he almost uses it affectionately. Sure there is mention of cut-off jeans, halter tops, beer, shotguns, fights, and of course cows, but in each of these poems there is also something that is universally relevant. Be it young love (or lust), a father's fears, neglect, or lose, the poems are power, moving and real.
Rusty is a master of capturing the darkness in everyday life and magnifying its effect. Just as in his short story collection Breaking It Down (Sunnyoutside, 2007), he brought the rawness of rural America into a structured and controlled setting. What is unknown is if these are observations or scenes pulled from imagination, but nonetheless Barnes yet again pulled me into his world.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book-Counting Games

I don't read nearly as many books as this guy, who is the single most widely read person on the continent, probably, but I read more than my fair share, usually in bed from midnight to three am. I can get most or all of one book into my brain during that time, if it's fiction or non-fiction, but then I don't really enjoy it (reading fiction) the way I used to, pre-academia. I don't get what Steve (see aforementioned link) calls the 'element of submersion.' I'm always reading with one eye to craft. But the point of this post is to say that I'm going to list what I'm reading every week or so to keep track (and so I can add to Goodreads, which is still good fun for me). I may comment further, I may not. You can still count on periodic longer posts detailing or discussing what I'm reading on the 'nets in regards poetry.

So, in 2011 so far, and via the blessings that are used bookstores online, I have read these books:

Against the Silences, Paul Blackburn, poetry
Deep in the Heart of Texas,Wyatt Wyatt, novel
Halfway Down the Coast, Blackburn, poetry & photos
this gone place, Lisa J. Parker, poetry
Wolf Face, Matt Hart, poetry
The Men's Club, Leonard Michaels, novel
Sylvia, Leonard Michaels, false memoir
Bluets, Maggie Nelson, poetry

Most of these are shortish poetry books. I'm not tackling more novels until mine is finished.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Field Goal Dialectic by Daniel Pritchard

This is a sweet little nugget I ran into on Twitter.

“Can’t you even tell a good tree from a poor tree?”
— Lucy Van Pelt, A Charlie Brown Christmas

Lucy puts the football down and then pulls it away at the last moment, leaving Charlie Brown sprawled across the lawn. Time after time, Charlie commits to the kick whole-heartedly, despite all evidence that the game is rigged. He’s going for the touchback. He throws himself into the task. Lucy cheats him. He tries again. Lucy pulls the ball away again. It’s downright sociopathic.
Anyone who was a good, productive worker at the beginning of 2008, but finds themselves on unemployment today — that “pre-paid vacation for freeloaders,” as Ronald Reagan so quaintly put it — probably feels a great deal of sympathy for poor Charlie. Those who side with Reagan probably find it funny. This football scene is a sort of paradigm for capitalism: a system of fairness, merit, and opportunity that easily, often, and by its own rules, implodes. When poor Charlie misses the ball during the homecoming game — again because Lucy pulls it away — it isn’t Lucy who gets the blame.
The fa├žade of working class life has changed dramatically for most Americans over the last three decades. Working people are more likely to hold a service job today than a factory job, and to interact daily with people from across the economic spectrum. Opportunities for conspicuous consumption have been extended to small town and ghetto by malls and the Internet. Distinctions of high and low culture have all but been erased. Families of every income level watch “Survivor.” In talking about poetry and class, we’re trying to pin down social classes that are in more flux than usual, even by shifting American standards. Assume from the very beginning that this is, at best, a seriously flawed discussion.
Let’s think about being “poor” for a moment. Lucy contrasts the idea of a “good” Christmas tree with the “poor” one that Charlie bought. Here it’s unclear whether she intends poor in the sense of low-quality or in the sense of low-class. The tree is both. (Does it have to be both?) That in itself is telling: poor meant “not wealthy” long before it meant “of low quality,” and the pun is ingrained in American speech. The use of “good” is interesting as well. Much of the English-speaking world might use “nice” or even “fine” to impart a level of quality (although I would bet that the more American good has taken hold). The word good carries with it a whole array of ethical connotations, and Lucy’s is a uniquely American contrast: good things (or people) are not poor in either sense of the word. The so-called (and inaccurately-named) Protestant Work Ethic value system is reflected in / imposed by the language we casually useMore: