Thursday, June 25, 2009

more on . . . poets on reading . . .

Stephen Ratcliffe
Listening to Reading

(Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000


Ron Padgett

Creative Reading:
What It Is, How to Do It, and Why

(Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997)


This post follows on John Olson’s essay “Extreme Reading,” posted here last week. After the essay went up, Olson himself e-mailed me, reminding me of two books that ought to be read and remembered by all extreme readers. This present post, then, serves both as a kind of supplement to “Extreme Reading,” and my shout-out for two books, each by a contemporary poet, that present terrific takes on reading.


Listening to Reading is a collection of essays on particular books by contemporary poets. There are two kinds of essays. The first type, which Ratcliffe calls “analytic close readings,” are a very familiar type, at least in intent: their purpose is to explain the poetry which is written about. The second kind of essay is remarkably non-traditional: called by Ratcliffe “reading-as-writing-itself,” their purpose is “to perform /demonstrate that writing by doing/enacting it.” As Ratcliffe puts it, this is “writing that in listening to reading engages its subject on, and in, its own terms.”

For those who like extreme reading, and particularly for those (I’m raising my hand here) who enjoy doing that with poetry, Ratcliffe’s book is a primary source. It includes key advice about how to read or engage with a text, and maybe even more serves as an inspiration: all the essays – and especially the performative pieces – serve as object lessons in the wonders a focused and deep reader can bring about.

With regard to advice about how to read, Ratcliffe asserts two main points. The first is embodied in the book’s title: Listening to Reading. Ratcliffe insists that words are only fully present when they enter through the ear, that poems have an acoustic dimension (a sound/shape) and meaning does not exist separately from that. If the poem is read silently, it must be read not only with the eyes, but also the ears. We must listen to reading.

The other key piece of advice concerns attention. Attention is all, Ratcliffe says, borrowing in part on this (with direct acknowledgement) from Ezra Pound. Ratcliffe advises:
read[] the poem closely, with the same act of attention – focused at both micro- and wide-angle range – to the surface, tilt, and interior thrust of a particular structure in words that the scientist brings to his study of observable (or supposed) phenomena.
This advice fits right in with any notion of extreme reading, I think. Last week, I used an image of a man peering into a microscope to illustrate Olson’s essay, and Ratcliffe’s insistence on scientist-like attention when reading certainly is consistent with that. But remember, Ratcliffe calls for not just visual, but auditory attention:

Look – no, strike that – LISTEN (sorry to shout, but I do so to emphasize Ratciliffe’s fervor regarding the sound/shape of poems): I can’t say enough about the richness of Ratcliffe’s book. If you like contemporary poetry, and extreme reading, this is a book to read, and read again.


Remember the following couplet from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (also used by Allen Ginsberg as an epigraph on the title page of Howl and Other Poems)?
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

Of course you do! Well, that’s precisely the kind of rebellious freedom that Ron Padgett advocates in Creative Reading. Padgett’s basic thesis is that the reader – to really have fun – needs to get “aggressive” (his word) and do what s/he wants with the text (italics below as in the original):
. . . the book is there for you to use as you see fit. It may have content you want to extract, it may be in a writing style you want to learn, it may lend itself to self-parody, or it may invite radical revision, rearrangement, or complete transformation. In all these cases, the book is raw material for you to shape. When you come to it ready to take it apart and put it back together, it has lost its inviolability, its implied claim to immutability, its intimidating authority. You become the new author. You assume authority.
In the key chapter of his book, Padgett lists and describes almost twenty creative reading techniques. It’s a tour-de-force. It begins with suggestions about changing single words in a text and reading alternate lines. It progresses to a discussion of reading a page repeatedly, “column confusion,” “fold-ins,” “day-toning,” “night-toning,” stencils and much else. It’s an extreme libertine reading primer like no other.

Padgett also has a chapter entitled “Reading in Unusual Situations.” Remember those images I used last week to illustrate John Olson’s essay, showing a person reading on a city street, in a humongous chair outdoors, or while jammed upside down between the walls in hallway? Well, Padgett in a few lucid paragraphs not only discusses similar situations, but explains why you feel the way you do when you see somebody else reading like that.

Padgett’s book is geared towards teachers, so sometimes it can trend toward the obvious and the exhaustive. But outweighing all that, and outweighing it by about two dozen complete sets of the O.E.D., are the many anecdotes or references Padgett puts into the book based on his experiences as a poet, writer, deep reader, and engaged member of the human race.

The book’s index (and hooray for an index!) includes dozens and dozens of proper names. And it’s not just the relatively well-known (Tristan Tzara, for example, and his recipe for dada cut-up poems) that turn up. Admittedly, I probably don’t get out of the house as much as I should, but new to me were names such as Marc Sapporo, author of a 1962 French novel that came in a box, with pages unbound and unnumbered, and John Waldman, a speed reading specialist who as a WWII soldier managed to get two trashy mystery novels for the price of one by reading only the odd-numbered pages of a book the first time through it, and then the second time, a few weeks later, reading through only the even-numbered pages.

My favorite anecdote in the book involves Padgett himself and concerns the creative reading technique he calls “typing.” To explain this particular technique, I’m going to type the opening paragraph of Padgett’s section on it, an explicative approach (as you may have already figured out) that is exactly perfect for this particular subject:
Typing. In the early 1960s, I learned that one of the best ways
to read an author was to type up his or her work at some length. I had
typed up brief selections from other people’s work – individual poems or
paragraphs, bits of dialogue, extracts from an essay – but it wasn’t until I
typed an entire collection of poems (the 66 poems in the first edition of
Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets) that I understood how close you can get to an-
other’s work by this means.
That’s a heck of a parenthetical tidbit, ain’t it?!! I’d forgotten or not known that Padgett -- I think this is how the story goes -- typed up the Berrigan masterwork for its first mimeoed publication. Think how fun that must have been! Padgett in the section from which the passage above is excerpted concisely explains what typing Sonnets taught him about Berrigan’s emphasis on single words, which kind of words he favored, the role of vowels, and other matters, including the poems’ line breaks, which he was able to focus on because (think here of the “old-fashioned” manual typewriter) he had to use the carriage return at the end of each line.

Typing out a poem: it’s a beautiful creative reading technique, a wonderful way to get in a little extreme reading.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Adventures in the Pharmakon . . .


An Essay
John Olson

Introductory Note: In response to my post a few weeks ago on Rae Armantrout’s “Sway,” Seattle poet John Olson wrote, “Holy cow. That is a vigorous reading . . . . I’m coining a phrase, based on ‘extreme sports.’ Extreme Reading.” About ten days ago, Olson wrote me again: “I was inspired to write a prose poem about Extreme Reading. But then the prose poem evolved into an essay. I was wondering if you might want to see it and possibly post it at your blog?” Needless to say, I answered “yes!” and am thrilled to present here the first publication of Olson’s essay.


Extreme Reading
Extreme reading is the opposite of speed reading. Words are not animals killed and stuffed for exhibition. Words are alive. Words are giants and angels. There has to be a certain suppleness of mind for a description of wool to become real wool, or a mosquito drawing blood through a proboscis on a shore near Rockstone, Guyana.

What happens when we read? Things and people that are absent become present. Images develop in the mind. An image is a drop of thought in the form of ink. A timeless vapor spun out of silk. The mind can go as deep as it wants into a word or string of words. Linger there as the world turns and the saga moves forward.

An alphabet is dead until the eyes bring the letters light and life. The harmonica is fulfilled when there is air blowing through it. Letters enter the eyes and become fireworks. A white lotus in a blue bowl. A cherry of juicy cognition. Gold embedded in sand. A pound of air fastened to a sheet of paper. A spectacle in which Montmarte and its smells and sounds are vivid and sexual. And the sky is encased in a walnut. And the spirit is awakened to the meaning of glass. Objects on a table. Sheer sugar bouncing through paradise in a borrowed jeep.

Focus is essential. One must be scrupulously idle. Open the book. Bend forward. Dive into it.


Reading is delicate, like surgery. The ribcage has been opened. There is a large red organ beating in spasmodic rhythms. Our thoughts turn toward a milieu of intellectual endeavor. Syllables rooted in glitter. The water has been disturbed. Sunlight fractures and flickers. The oars drift idly. The mouth opens to say what it is to feel one’s illusions shattered. Meanwhile the fetus of a new idea evolves into a series of convolutions immediate as skin.

Someone has scribbled their name in the sand. But the last breaking wave has made feathers of it.

Speed reading is like riding in a car. The world whizzes by in a blur. We get to our destination without having noticed what brought us to our destination. Extreme reading is driving a car. Extreme reading is stopping a car and getting out to go for a walk.

Consider the sky. Fingers curled around the spine of a book. Affections, reflections, infections, inflections. Yellow and red. Voices echoing in a planetarium.


Reading is a form of hallucination. The images and people we encounter among the letters are not there. The reality they acquire in our mind is equal to the effort we make in building them in our mind. Sufficient training will help understand the meaning of someone waving semaphores up and down but true reading requires something more of you than knowing how to spell or understanding the relationship between a sign and its referent. The letters invite a cooperation greater than the peremptory commands of a traffic light. Whoever came up with the idea of separating green from red with the happy ambiguity of yellow was clearly someone who enjoyed reading.


Why is it always so hard to find time to read? Or a place to read.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry used to set the controls of his P-38 Lightning on automatic and circle Marseille while reading a book.

He was claimed to have been shot down by Horst Rippert, a Luftwaffe pilot who acknowledged himself to be a fan.

It is a good idea to choose a safe place to read, though I am frequently dazzled by people who walk down city streets while reading a book.


Reading is like talking to a ghost. Picasso squeezing a tube of paint, wide-eyed in a yolk of gold.

The mind is silent like an aquarium. A brood of sounds and arbitrary signs lift themselves into color and being. Lambent designs maunder in undulation. A page is turned. A new paragraph begun. Einstein is disturbed to find that, according to the theory of relativity, the universe is not static, but either contracting or expanding. Starlight becomes deformed over long distances. The stratospheric irreality of huge numbers create new dimensions. Reading the universe, or a strand of DNA molecules, requires intuition, a feeling for combinatory forces and their tendency toward play.


All reading is based on this question: why is there something instead of nothing? The quantum vacuum is never empty but roils with virtual particles. The particles represent not only what is, but what might be. The same can be said of letters. Or a string of words. They represent what is, but the reader’s mind may take them elsewhere. Reverie is unpredictable.

Was there a time when nothing existed? No time? No space? No particles? No Bohemia? No journeys? Nothing thin? Nothing thick? Nothing glowing? No beauty or butter?


If you are reading this on a computer screen it is not so much a matter of proverbs as pixels. Proverbs belong to the formation of old religions. Pixels belong to the proverbs of lucidity. The light in the box. The light in the mind. The light coming out of the eyes.


“There is a kind of novelist,” observes Anthony Burgess, “usually popular, sometimes wealthy, in whose work language is a zero quantity, transparent, unseductive, the overtones of connotation and ambiguity totally damped.” The aim of this novelist “can only properly be fulfilled when the narrated action is transformed into represented action: content being more important than style, the referents ache to be free of their words and to be presented directly as sense-data.” This is not reading. This is watching television on paper.

As for the other kind of novelist, and here we have James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and Edgar Allan Poe in mind, “it is important that the opacity of the language be exploited, so that the ambiguities, puns and centrifugal connotations are to be enjoyed rather than regretted, and whose books, made out of words as much as characters and incidents, lose a great deal when adapted to a visual medium.”

The word-intoxicated writer of opacity and centrifugal connotation to which Burgess refers requires true reading. Attentive reading. Fully absorbed reading. Creative reading. Alert and aware and alive and perceptive reading. Deep reading. Engaged reading. Extreme reading.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, commenting on a statement by French linguist Antoine Meillet, that “linguistic events are qualitative” and that each language “forms a system,” and so entails a principle of internal organization, remarks that “to say that linguistic events are qualitative, is to say again that in their connection and their unrolling [déroulement] they require the mediation of consciousness.”

Language is a medium in the deepest sense, a membrane of sound and meaning in which light is diffused in that space between internal perception and external world.


Think of the potential in a single word. It is like opening a box. A procession of people leaving imprints in clay. Each word has acquired multiple layers and flavors as it has traveled from mouth to mouth over centuries of use. Take the word ‘subtle’ for instance. Subtle comes from Latin subtilis, which itself is a conflation of two Latin words, sub, meaning under, and tilis, which comes from tela, meaning web, which is related to texere, to weave. So here we have a word making clear and direct reference to the fine art of weaving, combining threads in a pattern, work requiring skill, dexterity, focus, and loving attention. And who hasn’t entered a shed and felt the fine brushing of a web against the skin, and how fine and delicate that sensation happened to be, and the smells associated with it, and the sense of things present that were not altogether present.

One of my favorite uses of the word ‘subtle’ appears in Secreta secretorum (The Secret of Secrets), a Middle English prose translation of the work in French by James Yonge, which itself was a translation from the Arabic Kitab sirr al-asrar, which makes reference to the Book of the science of government, on the good ordering of statecraft, and takes the form of a letter supposedly from Aristotle to Alexander during his campaign in Persia. Yonge writes “Sutil and thyn spetil that descendyth… fro the Palete of the mouth to the tonge.” What a spectacular image!

A more recent example appears in John Tyndall’s Heat considered as a mode of motion: being a course of twelve lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain in the season of 1862. Tyndall, a romantic pantheist, wrote: “The material theory supposes heat to be… a subtle fluid stored up in the inter-atomic spaces of bodies.”


There is no end to the associations drawn from disassembling a word. Lips are skin, finite and fixed, but the imagination is infinite.

Morning is beautiful because it travels on entertaining sticks. The sticks are letters. Some of them have curves. O is a fabric of dreams and snow. H gets expansion from kerosene rags lit by the i in a grapefruit.


Making art with words is just plain silly. Because beauty is savage and alphabets are the product of civilization. And what is civilization except people figuring out how to live with one another without killing one another. The process is incomplete. The world needs readers.

Socrates was against reading because he believed it would weaken the memory and lead people astray with illusions instead of truths. Socrates was wrong. Reading is what you make of it. It’s true that writing doesn’t have the suppleness and spontaneity of speech because once an idea is committed to pixel or paper it becomes frozen in time. Even the sloppiest email message has something stiff and remote about it because it lacks the quick improvisations of the tongue. But speech, which is frequently erratic and muddled, does not convey the truth any better than writing. Writing is a craft. There is more time to cram and season it with thought. The kind of thought that mulls and maunders in the mind until it is ripe and swollen and ready to drive turbines.

Neither speech nor writing can claim exemption from distorting the truth, or outright lying. But the written word is open to examination. It concentrates our attention. The extreme reader learns how to sift each phrase and sentence for nuggets of value and consequence. How to dwell in solitude. How to reflect. How to suspend judgment. How to drift in reverie. There is a sense of disembodiment when we read because we emerge from ourselves to occupy an imaginary domain, what Robin Blaser refers to as “an extreme ghostliness in language itself. It includes the sublime, the terrible and the uncanny…” Socrates feared that this “extreme ghostliness” would make people more vulnerable to noxious chimeras, phantom conceptions, Circean distortions. But the force of a skilled orator can be just as enchanting, just as misleading. Speech is no guarantor of integrity. Psychopaths have a notable tendency to be smooth, inviting, fascinating, and verbally facile.

Socrates was spot on when he said that language was a drug. He calls writing a Pharmakon, which can act either as a remedy or a poison. Socrates sees it acting as a poison because it not only weakens memory but lures us away from the truth with its inherently hallucinatory properties. “Operating through seduction,” observed Jacques Derrida in his essay on the subject, “the pharmakon makes one stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws.” But what’s wrong with that? That sounds like a good thing to me. Reality isn’t tied down. It is constantly moving.


Writing is governed by the ways of magic and not the laws of necessity. We are not in a domain of binoculars and sweat, as the explorer of a new terrain might be, but a jungle of letters whose horizon continually expands and everything is spectral as perfume.


To go to an extreme in anything implies danger. Extreme reading is no different. The danger is that it puts our mind elsewhere, outside the usual parameters, where it is free to question the laws in which it resides. Derrida compares this to a desire for orphanhood, and patricidal subversion.

It would not be surprising, then, to discover that a number of outlaws happened to be avid readers. Frank James used to perform scenes from Shakespeare while he and his brother Jesse robbed trains.

One of the primary characteristics of the orphan is neediness. Writers who light a match and burn what they have written in order to preserve a purity of expression are rare. Most people, when they have written something they are pleased with, desire an audience. It is there that one hopes for an ideal responsiveness, an educated public. “Context,” observes Ron Silliman in his essay “The Political Economy of Poetry,” “determines the actual, real-life consumption of a literary product, without which communication of a message (formal, substantive, ideological) cannot occur.” It is here that the poet hopes fervently for that rare species, the extreme reader. Someone willing to immerse themselves in language. Someone with a real love of language. Silly language. Non-utilitarian language. Language without boundaries. Language that fuels wild speculations by a vigorous contiguity and artfully reveals the exquisite actuality of words in the spring of their creation. Which, surprisingly, antagonizes a lot of people.

Silliman writes elsewhere, in the mid-eighties, that the “widespread howling and derision which has greeted the tendency which has come to be characterized as ‘language poetry’ reflects precisely this taboo against transcending the known universe… the outcries of those poets and critics for whom the arrival of anything new in the field of writing is, literally, impossible is an index of just how painful the recognition of one’s own cultural borders can be.”


Extreme reading, which encourages the reader to follow the subterranean laws of association rather than logic, offers incendiary salvation from a world that has ceased to be mulled or maundered but mauled into mall after mall after mall. Extreme reading is liberation by inebriation. Mania, marvel, and maze. An evocation, a walk up library steps in quest of a voyage.

-- John Olson


Works Cited or Used in
Extreme Reading
An Essay by John Olson
(May-June, 2009):

Burgess, Anthony. Joysprick, An Introduction To The Language Of James Joyce. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Sens et Non-Sens. Paris: Les Éditions Nagel, 1948. Translation by author.

Oxford English Dictionary. Online Edition.

Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof, 1987.

Blaser, Robin. “The Practice of Outside.” Essay included in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.



Thanks again to John Olson.
Olson’s essay on the CERN large hadron collider will be appearing in American Scholar. His essay on aliteracy, titled “Gutenberg Blues,” was published last year here at the glade (click to go).

Olson’s prose poems this year have appeared in print in The Hat 8, New American Writing 27, Denver Quarterly (Volume 43, Number 3 (April 2009), and Bateau, Vol. 2, No. 2, and on-line at Alligatorzine. Additional poems are scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of American Poetry Review. His most recent collection is Backscatter: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2008).

Olson’s novel, Souls of Wind, concerning the adventures of Arthur Rimbaud and Billy the Kid in the 19th Century American West, was published last year by Quale Press.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Sea! Water! Ulysses! Joyce! Yes!



Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look.

– Buck Mulligan, in Chapter 1 of Ulysses

Algy is a shorthand reference to Swinburne. “Epi oinopa ponton” is Greek for “the wine-dark sea,” a phrase used by, and thus here an allusion to, Homer in The Odyssey. Thalatta! Thalatta!” (“The Sea!, The Sea!”), as Wikipedia concisely explains, is from a story by the Greek historian Xenophon, a contemporary of Socrates; it’s what was shouted by thousands of soldiers upon seeing the Black Sea after many days on land.

Swimmers at Forty Foot near Sandycove
Dublin Bay, Ireland
(near Martello Tower,
the location for the scene quoted above,
and where James Joyce swam regularly)

Associated Press photo, 2006






What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?

Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its umplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: Its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including billions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents: gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs, and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe) numerically, if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constituting 90% of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.

– from Ulysses, Chapter 17
Note: A great prose-poem, embedded in the novel. Incredible vocabulary, epic reach. At least two wonderful poems patterned after Joyce’s have been published over the decades. In the late 1920s, American expatriate Harry Crosby published “Madman”, a prose poem which recounts the characteristics of the sun in a manner very similar to how Joyce in the passage above sets forth various qualities of water. In the late 1990s, Lisa Jarnot published “What In Fire Did I, Firelover, Starter of Fires, Love?”, a prose poem in which she recounts, with a more personal perspective than either Joyce or Crosby, but in the same serial manner, certain qualities of fire.





Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922
(the first edition)

the events of the novel
take place

June 16
, 1904





James Joyce
Paris: 1926 Photo by Berenice Abbott


James Joyce
A Portrait by Constantin Brâncuşi
used as the frontispiece for

Tales Told of Shem and Shaun

(Paris: The Black Sun Press, 1929)




. . . yes I said yes I will Yes.
. . . yes I said yes I will Yes.
. . . yes I said yes I will Yes.



Wednesday, June 10, 2009

pssst! . . . wanna know how he did it?

Behind the Curtain

of . . .

. . . Nathan Austin’s

Survey Says!

Three weeks ago, I raved about Nathan Austin’s Survey Says! (click here to see!). It’s a 50 plus page prose poem made up entirely of re-ordered answers given during certain periods of time by contestants on the TV game show Family Feud.

I’m still enjoying, really enjoying, the book, and now there’s yet another reason to like it.

You see, Austin in both public readings and in e-mails has now explained how he went about re-ordering the answers. (So, yes, it’s not really a secret in the strict sense, but it is a mystery revealed.)

I gotta tell you: Austin’s re-ordering method is really, really good. It’s one very clever and effective procedure.

As you may remember, part of what I like in Survey Says! is how the re-ordered answers/sentences play together. Sometimes the answers/sentences seem in combination to have traditional poetic relationships, as in repetition and quasi-repetition, rhyme and quasi-rhyme. Other times, the combinations are less traditionally but certainly poetic, as when answer/sentence combinations show the word as object or when they result in Gertrude Stein-ish rhythms. It’s really a lot of fun that way.

I also wrote three weeks ago that in some sections of the poem, “the connective thread between the sentences seems invisible, and may be non-existent.” Here’s an example of a passage from the book that to me seems to have no obvious connections between the re-ordered answers/sentences:

Reading this passage, “Coyotes” and sentences that immediately follow, including “Spaghetti” and “A pool stick” and everything else, aren’t obviously linked. To say it again, the connective thread seems invisible, and may be non-existent.

But oh reader of this here glade-blog, how wrong, or really half-wrong, but in a major way, I am! You see, the connective thread does indeed “seem invisible,” but it most definitely is NOT non-existent. To eliminate the double-negative: there is a connection, a very rigorous one, between all of Austin’s re-ordered answers/sentences.

Ready to take a look behind the curtain of Survey Says!?

Here is Nathan Austin’s explanation of his method, quoted direct from an e-mail he kindly sent and agrees I can share here:

“It’s alphabetized . . . I wanted a system of ordering the answers that would leave the juxtapositions between different items out of my control. Alphabeticization provided a solution, but it looked too natural, too predictable.

So instead of using the initial letter of the word or phrase, I used the second. Instead of the list:
Adam, baby, cat
I got:
baby, cat, Adam
I also decided to disregard spacing and punctuation. So the list:
I will be old.
I’m going to say “hello.”

She is going to the store.

What are you doing?
Gets ordered as follows:
What are you doing?
She is going to the store
I’m going to say “hello.”

I will be old.
So this gave me all the strict rigor of alphabeticization, but without being so readily apparent as to appear “predictable.”

And the effect is one of not being able to pin down the system. It’s there, but it eludes easy recognition.”

Ain’t that something?! Austin alphabetized, but did so based on the second (and, in case of a “tie” the subsequent) letters in each sentence. In the excerpt above from Survey Says!, Austin runs through the o-y’s, then the p-a’s and p-e’s, then has a single p-i’s, and finally a few p-o’s.

Switching the alphabetizing key from the initial letter greatly masks the method, or at least it did for me. I sure didn’t pick it up, and I doubt others do (Austin in an e-mail says that to his knowledge nobody has figured it out, and that it’s usually an early question at post-reading discussions). There’s a famous Heraclitus aphorism, sometimes translated as, “A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one.” Well, Austin’s method is yet further proof of how right the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher was.

[Added info, June 12, 2009: It turns out, some have figured out Austin’s method. The observant and knowledgeable John Cotter, in a recently published and terrific review of Survey Says! -- which he kindly sets out in a comment to this post (please see below, or which can be viewed on his blog [click here to go]) -- stated precisely how Austin did it, while also mentioning he didn’t see it at given the fun of the answers/sentences. Elisa Gabbert, in a post about the book also mentions the method, and also makes the marvelous observation that a passage of the poem has a “Dr. Seuss flarfy trance magic” (click here to read her review).]

Austin’s method, at least for me, is hard to pick up even when it’s known and being specifically looked for. There are several reasons why it stays hidden. Each sentence’s initial letter predominates in the mind, particularly given our shared habit of alphabetizing words and names by that letter. Those first letters can and do change in Austin’s poem, even while an the alphabetical progression goes forward just a letter (or a space and a letter) away. Also, the remainder of the word and/or sentence quickly seizes attention when reading. Basically, the second letter gets left in the dust, especially when that letter ends a word and is thus followed by a space before the subsequent letter. All this just make it really difficult to isolate the alphabetical order in Survey Says!. It’s marvelous that way, I think.

Austin’s re-ordering method is marvelous too because the second-letter based alphabetizing tends to carry forward phonetic similarities and even word groupings sentence-to-sentence. This of course fosters alliteration, rhyme, near rhyme, Stein-ian rhythms and other word-gasms. And because the method is essentially hidden, it permits readers, as I discussed in the original post, a seemingly endless cascade of curiosity and reverie about possible connections between the sentences.

And there’s more! Now that Austin’s method is known, readers can also appreciate the sheer wonder of certain combinations of sentences/answers wrought by the deterministic procedure. It’s a classic example of how a rigid system can nevertheless result in whacked-out (i.e., great) wonderful poetry, or maybe how such a pre-determined method fosters such a result.

Survey Says! has plenty of quasi-surrealist “umbrella and sewing machine on an operating table” type encounters, including for example:
Pizza man. A Jack Russell terrier. A judge. Skating.
Now that’s a madcap scene, no matter which way you go at it. Add Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello, and you could almost pitch a film project with that series of answers!

But there are also combinations brought on by the alphabetizing that are, if I may put it this way, quite inspired. For example, in the passage re-produced above, the sentence:
A Pig.
is immediately followed by:
A Police Officer.
The order of those two sentences is required by, and exactly correct under, Austin’s alphabetizing method. Yet the resulting combination is much more than the sum of its pre-determined by procedure parts, yes? Oink, oink! Readers will also come across:
Color it. Polyester.
a sentence combination that cracks me up, although I’m not sure why, and
Having sex. Cavities and drilling.
which did bring on a half rip-snort although an allowance must be made for the limited view of amorous activity the joke embodies. I could list a bunch more wondrous and/or funny sentence combinations, all of which fell into place via the pre-determined procedure. But I won’t list anymore: you should discover them yourself.

Austin by my estimate had upwards of 2,500 answers/sentences to re-order (read: alphabetize using his method) in Survey Says!. Given that large number, perhaps it is not too surprising that he wasn’t perfect. There’s at least one mistake, where a sentence appears in place inconsistent with the controlling alphabetizing principle. Can you spot the glitch in the following passage?

Now, let me be clear: although this mistake (hint: it’s after the end of the m’s) is a flaw, it does not spoil the poem. Actually, it makes me embrace Austin’s effort even more. Survey Says! is not a machine-made text, but a work by a human. Being human, imperfections will happen, at least for most of us. We people make mistaakes.

The error in the passage may be an advantage, actually, if the goal is (as it should be) to draw the reader into the work. Having spotted the one mistake, I wonder if there are others. There’s only one way to satisfy that curiosity: read the poem again, and again, carefully looking at the second and subsequent letters of each sentence in relation to those of the sentences that precede and follow it, checking in that way to see if there are any other alphabetizing mistakes. This sort of supplemental digging in and around the sentences, a close reading of a very extreme kind, would be unnecessary if Survey Says! had been perfect. The mistake, then, results in an even stronger bond between the reader, or at least me, and the poem.

So that’s the scoop on Austin’s method, and a bit more. I love this book, which transmutes daily TV blather into big fun crazy poetry. Order via Amazon (click here if you please), or for a currently less expensive alternative, via Lulu (click here for that option).

Friday, June 5, 2009

Straight outta . . .


Traditional hard copy print journals can still deliver great poetry. Just see, for example, my last two posts here in the glade, concerning respectively Rae Armantrout’s “Sway” and an interview with John Olson, both of which appear in the current paper-only issue of Denver Quarterly.

Yet it is also true that the instant ‘round-the-world publishing made possible by the Internet is amazing, especially if you enjoy reading poetry.

One particularly amazing example of Internet poetry amazingness is Alligatorzine, an e-zine that for five years now has serially published, mostly in English but sometimes in Dutch and French, 75 selections from a variety of contemporary poets. The Alligatorzine website includes a list of all that has been published, with the most recent on top.

I just think it’s incredible: a ‘zine in Belgium publishes a writer from Rhode Island, Jerusalem, or Seattle (all examples have in fact occured), and that work then can be read, instantly and/or years later, by me here in California and many others elsewhere on this here mudball we call home. In this respect, I must agree with Kenneth Goldsmith’s assertion that “the Internet has rendered geography basically obsolete.”

In addition to its awesome (caution: coined word ahead) Internetivity, Alligatorzine is remarkable for the quality and kind of work it has put up: in general, if you enjoy experimental poetry, done very well, then this is a ‘zine to check out.

For example, among their publications in the first half of this year are two prose poems from Rosmarie Waldrop. I love prose poetry, and Waldrop’s a master (I have about ten books, including chaps, of just such work by her). The two poems at Alligatorzine are short, and seem related, so fairly extracting a few sentences isn’t possible. But their sentences are like thought, or thoughts deep within or floating above, or just before or just after, some other thought, if that makes any sense, and I recommend them highly (click here to go).

Alligatorzine this year has also put up a new Andrew Joron prose poem, “Unfall,” that consists of twenty numbered single sentences or short paragraphs. It’s mysterious and beautiful, full of echoes and reflections of the kind that give such energy to Joron’s collection The Sound Mirror, published last year. Here’s the first of the twenty segments:
Mine to ask a mask to say, A is not A. After a face laced in lostness: a rigged signature, a game of chance.
Alligatorzine has also published several works by Clayton Eshleman this year, including a whip-smart-sharp and at points very funny imagined dialogue called “Max Ernst During the Rain.” Check out the staggering energy of the words from the imagined Ernst (who answers the question in this snippet from Eshleman’s prose-poem dialogue):
Is this what happens to you from staring at stains on the wall?

—Oh yes, blue immobilities, dormant ochres, dried menstrual rain, karstic urges, centrifigual blocks magnificent in their centripetal sway, mummified hornets bursting their shrouds in order to drill into the tiny pistons of their souls, the bones of lightning rampant in a bear! At wing with my vision, I palpate the bowels of solar foals.
Another work by Eshleman, more recently posted at Alligatorzine, is “Pollock Pouring,” a poem that reads as a response, and a great one, to a Jackson Pollock painting. The poem begins with lines containing much rhyme that somehow – at least to my mind and eyes – seem to mimic the drips and splatters of a classic Pollock work, or the feelings and thoughts one has looking at such a work:
To cage you blizzard, to purify
your gizzard while disemboweling
the lizard in its bower. To make these millipedal
feelers mill, to pedal eels, white elvers . . .
Eshleman’s poem also includes spot-on metaphor that invokes both the painting itself and the viewer’s response to it, plus bold even surprising references that rivet attention, as in the following lines:
Blizzard, I lock you into drawn-down freefall
where the moldy straw
as if by Rumpelstiltskin is turned into aureate flares.
Other authors published in English this year in Alligatorzine include Jean Daive (translated from the French by Waldrop), Heller Levinson, and John Olson (six prose poems, then, most recently, five more). In previous years, they’ve published Yoel Hoffmann (translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole), Rachel Blau DuPlessis (a selection from her Drafts), George Schneeman & Ron Padgett (several art-poem collaborations), Forrest Gander (an essay on Creeley, including about his linebreaks), Robert Kelly, Omar Cáceres (translated from the Spanish by Mónica de la Torre), and many others.

The ‘zine’s web-site states, “Alligator is an alternative press. Non-profit and definitely not mainstream.”

Or, as they also put it, in Dutch: “Alligator is een alternatieve uitgeverij. Non-profit en afzijdig van de mainstream.”

This is one wild Alligator, in other words. A wild one that I’m quite certain you won’t mind getting in the water with, as frequently as you can.

End-note: You’ve probably figured it out, but just in case: almost every mention of Alligatorzine in the post links to the page on their website that lists, and provides links to, the 75 separate pages they’ve published. In addition, discussions of or mentions in this post of individual poets or poems link to the pages at Alligatorzine where the poem or poet’s work is published.