Saturday, August 28, 2010

Put these in your Kindle . . .

. . . (or some other e-reader) . . .
                                                                                     . . . and smoke (read) em!


Cid Corman

followed by a celebration
of a few books by others
of a design very similar to the Corman titles
and more recently published by
Country Valley Press:

(yes, this is a longish post, but oh the books, and the poems!)

Let us, dear readers of the glade, delight today – luxuriate, enjoy, revel – in certain little books of poetry by Cid Corman published in the1960s and early 1970s, and then do the same with a few poetry books published recently by Northern Nevada’s Country Valley Press that have the same look as the Corman books.

All these books have something in the way they are made and feel in the hand, something in how they look to the eyes, that greatly increases the pleasure of the experience of reading the poetry printed within. I can’t exactly articulate what this added value is, and can’t possibly measure it. Maybe I can just say that the books are nice. Cool. Fun. Modest. Cute. Handsome. Simple. And yes, lovely. Well designed and well-made. Objects in which form closely parallels substance.

As pointedly suggested by the title of this post, e-readers for me can’t possibly provide anything close to the sensation of actually having books like these in hand. Yes, a portable screen with digitized images would easily present the words, the poems. But the poetry? The poetry of the experience?

That would be a negative. Gone would be the feeling, and important sensation, that each collection, each little book-object as a whole, is – danger, romanticized sentimental bibliophilia coming here, but really, this is what I think – a kind of small bird, a beating heart, a physical presence, a life-thing unto itself, that you can specially hold, look into, cherish, remember, and return to.

This is all highly ironic to say here, via computer, but still. If you can swing it, get one or more in hand, either via buying one used (currently copies of individual titles are priced at around $20 and up) or get to a library (rare book collections, mostly) that has ‘em, and give it a try.

In the meantime, the following parade – with stops along the way to take in a bit of poetry – maybe can give a sense of what I mean. Let’s start with the Cid Corman books. Each is 3.5" x 5" with Japanese-sewn wraps and a paper label affixed to the front. All are unpaginated but have 16 numbered but untitled poems, each of which is no more than a page each (and often much shorter). Each book also has a dedicatory poem and a poem-coda, both of which are italicized.

The fourteen little books pictured below may not be all in this style that Corman published (I’m working on finding out if there are any others) and of course there are plenty of other Corman books that are small and/or bound in Japanese-sewn wraps. What follows, then, is an almost complete show of a particular, and particularly charming, kind of Corman book. Please enjoy:

for sure
(Origin Press, 1960)
[number in edition not stated]

I picked a
leaf up

it weighed
my vision

I knelt and
placed it

where it was

This is a very early, perhaps the first, publication of this often re-printed poem, which Corman in 2001 (click here) said was probably his most famous work. When Corman recites the poem (he begins about a minute into the recording linked to here), he carefully emphasizes the “almost” that begins the final couplet. That “almost,” I think, suggests the closeness of his observations (he sees that the leaf doesn’t get it exactly back in place), his fidelity or honesty in reporting the actual scene, and his humbleness with respect to what he, the poet, can do.


for instance
(Origin Press, 1962)
[number in edition not stated]

a violet pink
a peaked

red roof
and a roof

soft black

This being a poem, it needs no explanation (that’s a paraphrase of Basil Bunting, regarding his own Briggflatts, a complex and difficult work) and the same “no explanation it’s a poem” is also true, maybe even more so, of Corman’s work, which is generally quite (and beautifully) transparent.

So I’ll just say of the poem above that the hard consonants of its first lines hit and send me hard, and very well, that I always “see” the rows of roofs, and am always killed by the “soft black” alone at the end. Is it the “soft black” of a roof, the coming on of the night sky, the “soft black” of the mind? Answer: Yes.


for good
(Origin Press, 1964)
[number in edition not stated]

The kitten,
put out there,
in the

dark, mews. What
else is there
to do?

Who says a poem with a kitten must be cuddly and cute? I don’t get feel that in this one. This one seems lonely, even harsh. And maybe it’s the poet who mews, too.


for you
(Origin Press, 1966)
[100 copies]
[distributed at the wedding of Corman and Konishi Shizumi]

Old ladies
among the plums,
as if there

werent a
moment to lose,
lost in it.

I friggin’ love this poem, including the quick-change of “lose” to “lost.” The reverie in intensity, and the self-less moment. Dig too the absence of the apostrophe in the otherwise contracted werent. You wouldnt think that leaving out the punctuation mark would make a big difference. But it does, via compression.

Shadows of bamboo
sweeping steps to the temple
shift no dust.

This poem, also from for you, has at least three ghosts: a broom, the person using it, and, the big one, the obviously very wind. Poetry too in the “sh” or “sw” sounds that begin each line.

Rice on the
racks and the
fields empty

Two women
in aprons
at an edge

breath at the
sky as they
squat smoking.

This last poem here from for you has an image in the final line – “[t]wo women” who “squat smoking” – that is given what it describes exactly where it ought to be, down low beneath it all. A similar effect is felt earlier in the final stanza, as the words (“breath at the / sky”) showing that the women exhale up (a classic smoker thing!) direct the reader’s attention to the stanzas above.


for granted
(Elizabeth Press, 1967)
[500 copies]

An apple
on the table

I happen to believe that the apple actually did celebrate, and that it still does. Oh yes, this is a small poem, from a small book. But a small idea? A poem that wasn’t important then, still-born when published, and now even more old-fashioned and threadbare?

I reject any response like that as small-minded and cold-hearted. Poems such as the one above, to paraphrase and quote from Corman, are a realization shared, that was and is an “OCCASION.” And thus the poem becomes, and remains, a timeless person-to-person exchange, a thing as rich, new, alive, and important as anything.


no less
(Elizabeth Press, 1968)
[500 copies]

The wind bell
bell wind un-

The palindromed adjective-noun combo here, sounding the sound, or not, is sweet.


no more
(Elizabeth Press, 1969)
[1000 copies]

Core of
an apple

of an old

Hey, hey what do you say, I’ve rolled out another poem with apple, just for you. And speaking of you, do you know what Corman wrote – in “Poetry as a Mode of Realization” (1969) – about his poems, and those who read them? Here it is:
The poem is yours or no one’s.

for keeps
(Origin Press, 1970)
[300 copies]

Leaf   c

Well here we have a cummings-like split word, and this one especially excites because it involves an autoantonym, those wondrous words that can mean the opposite of itself. I’m pretty sure the leaf “here” is splitting apart from the branch, given how “cleave” is broke apart, but it’s also entirely true that the leave, having fallen, sticks “here” too.


(Elizabeth Press, 1970)
[500 copies]

I mean hot!
Too much to
think of what
it might mean

Last week we had a stretch of a couple days – it happens two or three times a year here San Francisco – during which the temperature here in the City hit the mid-90s. The natural air conditioner that otherwise keeps things very cool – seen most dramatically in the fog that rolls through the gaps and over the hills, a phenomenon caused by differences in atmospheric pressure over the sea and inland areas, plus the consequences of ocean upwelling and the Coriolis Force – shuts down, and suddenly it’s hot. I’m telling you, it was hot! To quote Corman’s first line, “I mean hot!” Please see again the rest of the poem above, which I thought about more than a few times this past week.


for now
(Origin Press, 1971)
[300 copies]

wet red
day red-
der yet

Will you look at that: “redder” -- as the hyphenation at the line break plainly shows -- is a palindrome-word, and all the “re” and “er” in this poem act to intensify the colors.


be quest
(Elizabeth Press, 1972)
[300 copies]

The rain is
the sound of
it—it it

until it
makes meaning
make meaning

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain, telling me just what a . . . . But this drums stronger, a lot more insistent, than then syrup-sweet line of the Cascades song. The the it it it it makes meaning make meaning. And don’t you forget it (or it-it either!).


so far
(Elizabeth Press, 1973)
[300 copies]

To embrace
a tree – how
silly can
you get – yet

to want to
dance with it
the way the
wind’s doing

This is a poem of total self-admitted goofy sincerity and – look, folks, I’m a equal opportunity polyamorous tree-huggin’ type – so I say hell yes let’s like Cid get down tonight (do a little dance, make a little love) with all the he, she, LGBT trees!


(Elizabeth Press, 1974)
[500 copies]


at a rain

a pin of
the pine

like a question


This here’s a classic example of an interpolated poem (see also cummings’ classic “l(a” in which “a leaf falls” within the word loneliness), which among other things gives a sort of cubist twist to the observed details. There’s the added surprise here of the final word looking like the point at the bottom of the question mark described just above in the poem.


(Origin Press, 1976)
[300 copies]




And we end with a poem with that gives you, in a way, a choice of endings in its two suffixes. Of course each line here is but a single (single) syl-la-ble, as we must imagine the bell sounds seemed to be. And then there are –fling and –fled: ignoring the root to which they should be affixed, those words imply something quickly thrown and quickly gone. Attached to the root, and thus forming baffling and baffled, they end the poem with a current and forever mystery, and mystery forever to be thought upon, and heard.

Thanks, Cid!


Country Valley Press, headed by Mark Kuniya, has published limited edition poetry books and broadsides for about five years now, first from Gardnerville, Nevada and now in Zephyr Cove, a town at Lake Tahoe and also in the Silver State.

As Kuniya says on the website, “[t]he first series of publications from Country Valley Press” were made to continue the tradition of Corman’s little books, printed in limited print runs and bound like them. Here are images of the covers of each, and, for the final two pictured below, the most recent of this series, a poem or excerpt along with a brief discussion:

John Martone

(Country Valley Press, 2006)
[4.25" x 5.5"]
[50 copies]


Scott Watson
a breath apart

(Country Valley Press, 2006)
[4.25" x 5.5"]
[50 copies]
[pictured against blue background]


Bob Arnold
life’s little day

(Country Valley Press, 2007)
[4.25" x 5.5"]
[100 copies]

Bob Arnold, who with his wife Susan operates Longhouse Publishers & Booksellers in southernVermont, is one of the energy-wonders of poetry. Almost like nobody else, he puts it down, and gets it out, and I mean his own work and that written by others, mostly in small booklets or folded broadsides but also in more substantial collections.

I like the sensibility and care Arnold brings to words, to his poems. It’s wise and empathetic, schooled by experience and curiosity, and yet the instincts are right too. The following poem from life’s little day seems to me a good example of his spirit and craft. I think the poem gets into some of the same realities that are in back of Wallace Steven’s “Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock” (click here to read that one, if you please), except in Arnold’s nine-line poem the vital creative force is more directly present and foregrounded:

Many colored
bright striped
walking skirt

out in the gray woods
gray houses
gray neighbors

they can’t help
but sneak
a peek
This poem also shows how Arnold can get a little fun into some of his poems; here it is the humorous and – I’ll insist – universal curiosity most of us have about those whom we live amongst, with the sly recognition of what is happening matching the slyness of those taking a quick look at the flamboyant woman coming through.


Jeffery Beam
an invocation

(Country Valley Press, 2009)
[3.5" x 5"]
[100 copies]

This little book, exactly the same size as all the Corman books pictured above, presents a single long short-poem of 60 lines. There are four lines (a single quatrain) to a page, or more accurately – and this here is the dang interesting thing about this book and poem – there are four lines to each two pages: each line begins with a phrase on left side and then concludes with a separate phrase on the opposing right-hand page, with the book’s gutter creating a natural break, a point of pause, between the two parts. Here’s how it looks (click on the image, and then click again to enlarge, to read the text; other parts of the poem are quoted below):

I think it amazing that the book’s structure becomes a part of the poem, and it really works well in Country Valley’s little book. Here, the gutter is not so large, and the page size and design naturally limits the number of lines per page. The eye and mind go horizontally across the page, does a little jump over the gutter, and then take in the concluding phrase for each line. The poem’s also included – in fact it opens – Beam’s Gospel Earth (Skyskill Press, 2010), and for me it doesn’t work as well there because the line-pauses are set up typographically on the page, and up to a half-dozen quatrains are presented on each of the three pages on which the poem’s presented.

But of course here in this post you’re going to see an excerpt from the poem without a gutter. This then provides a clear example of how the physical book, the small Country Valley Press edition, trumps any e-reader or digital display of the poetry. The gutter in the book makes the pause in each line between the call and response real, a physical fact, a space in which one can feel that the poem’s action – and your mind a readers – take a small leap before continuing. It makes for a far more memorable experience than the flat screen.

So, here are the screen-versions of the fourth and fifth quatrains of an invocation:
From rosehip & goldfinch                       thorn & bright needle
From storm clouds gathering                 light darting through us
From April’s spring torrents                   creek’s roaring persistence
From pond over-flowing                          swamp’s restraint ending

From the word unblemished                  robust declension
From honesty in bloom                            articulate blue
From granite to flagstone                        columbine freshes
From cat-paw & wind-blow                    soft goes the morning
Although sometimes Beam trades in more general terms, most of the paired phrases in an invocation include natural details similar to those quoted above. All the details seem very particular to the North Carolina area where Beam was born, raised and has long-lived. The relationships between the call and the across the page-gutter response are sometimes complementary, sometimes supplemental, and at other times the juxtapositions just are, with the connection being more or less hidden (and per Heraclitus, thereby stronger). This Country Valley edition is an excellent poem of a place, neatly conceived, well written, and presented in a most beautiful Corman-style book, taking full advantage of the little book’s form.


Cid Corman
(June 29, 1924 – March 12, 2004)
[photo by Lisa Mahoney]


Saturday, August 21, 2010

The big-fun (and poetic, natch) . . .

. . odds-‘n’-ends . . .

. . . that . . .

Greying Ghost Press
in its
mailing envelopes!

(I kid you not!)

About two months ago, I ordered a book from Greying Ghost Press. Specifically, I ordered Naturalistless, a small collection of new-word poems by Christopher Rizzo. I already had another publisher’s edition of this book (and wrote about, here), but ordered up the Greying Ghost edition because when it comes to poetry I love, well, I’m a completist.

The ordered chapbook quickly arrived from Greying Ghost, in a standard-sized (6" x 9") mailing envelope (the corner of the envelope with the rubber-stamped return address is pictured above), and yes indeed, Naturalistless is a beautiful handmade production (see it here), as I believe everything is that Greying Ghost publishes.

But – as they say on TV – there was more, a whole heck-of-a-lot more (there’s more!) in addition to the chapbook. You see, the book – which not incidentally cost but two dollars, such a deal! – was enclosed amidst a small pile of paper odds and ends, most of which appeared to have been cut out from old magazines or books. This, I subsequently discovered from the Greying Ghost masthead on its website, is how that press rolls:
all of our mail orders are stuffed full with either old photos, fragments of old maps and books, comic scraps, and most importantly, FREE pamphlets of poems by people we admire.
How about that? You buy a book, any book, and you get the book and what amounts to a goofy treasure-stack of flotsam and jetsam (plus free pamphlets) that brings back the fun of (warning: boy and young kid allusions dead-ahead) opening a pack of baseball cards and seeing which players you got, plus the silly fun of the prize in the CrackerJack box.

Let me share with you here some of what came in the Greying Ghost envelope I received. For me, the stuff in the envelope seems to make a kind odds-‘n’-ends collage-poem, one with neither a straight-line narrative nor any consistent theme, but which pointed me towards a thing or three that made me smile. And laugh. And even dance.

I’ll go so far as to say that all the bits-and-pieces in the Greying Ghost envelope, in their poetic reverie-ing, reminded of the Robert Hunter lyric, “Once in a while / you get shown the light / in the strangest of places / if you look at it right,” except that with the Greying Ghost goofy-treasure envelope-inserts, you “get shown the light” whether you look at it right, left, up, down, or inside-out.

Know what I mean?

Well, if you please, take a look at what I first saw come out of the envelope:

Now somehow this very simple maybe even banal cartoon and caption has become this summer a most marvelous reminder of the proper mindset for reading poetry. Knothead, you may know, is Woody Woodpecker’s nephew. In the cartoon image, which measures 4.75" x 3.5", the kid-bird appears to exuberantly offer a guess as Woody and his niece (named Splinter) read a book, as we observe the trio through the window of a plane.

The key here, for me, is the caption:
Knothead Makes a Guess
Now that’s a slogan for the ages. May we all take a shot, venture forth with a conjecture, speculate a little about what we see or hear or think, just like the little bird-tyke Knothead. In short, may we all be Knothead! I’m going to get this thing framed!

The fun continues on the reverse-side of the cartoon cut-out, which presents a page of the Woody Woodpecker story from which it’s taken. The text presented, to go just a bit too far (but I insist it works) in its first two paragraphs raises interesting questions, perhaps of enduring (!) ontological and epistemological significance (!), before turning to more mundane narrative exposition:

The Greying Ghost envelope inserts also included this, from I presume some magazine:

and about this I think that yes, we all are “Curious Children” – or should be – whether we live in Bangkok or not. Then were also enclosed odd texts, including pages from a biography of an actress (transform reality, yes?) and from a recipe book (combine ingredients and cook something up!) -- click each to enlarge, if you please --

And there was the following, a pair of black-and-white photos from the pages of some old magazines, making for a wondrous odd couple:

And the stuff in the envelope continued with the following small rectangular card, a sort of Duchamp-ian readymade of a thing, presumably found in some discarded board game, and which makes me feel rich with wonder:

Also included in the Greying Ghost envelope was a 1.5" square card from the mudluscious press “Stamp Series Project.” The one I received is an untitled three sentence story-poem by Norman Lock, a writer whose fictions (which often border on prose poetry) I love. The mudluscious press project involves at present more than 60 different writers, each of which has written an approximately 50 word story that is printed on a small card. The cards are then distributed to twenty or so participating independent presses. Those presses in turn mail a card, as a kind of free bonus, to those who buy something from them. Now that is random fun like random fun should be!

Here’s the Norman Lock card I received, pictured first at something akin to its actual size, and then enlarged for your reading pleasure:

This little story, it seems to me, belongs to the same family as “Down the Drain,” the 1957 spoken-word prose poem by the great talker Ken Nordine. It’s on Nordine’s CD Son of Word Jazz, if you want to check it out.

The Greying Ghost envelope, along with all the above (plus about a half-dozen other things not imaged), also included three of the press’ pamphlets, each an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper folded to make a 5.5" x 4.25" booklet. I received In My Room, a flash fiction by Lydia Copeland, Wells!, a text by Carl Annarummo (who via the internet I’ve learned runs Greying Ghost), and The Cullings, a poem by Jon Cone.

The Cullings appropriates (and lineates) text from Reports of The Princeton University Expeditions to Patagonia (1896-1899) and is a cogitating hoot of flora-observations. The poem has 27 short stanzas, and here are the first four, offered to provide a taste of the lexical deliciousness of its details:
A creeping small,
            glabrous with short

Dorsally scabrous,
            subapically awned,
            the awn exceeding the flower.

Stems clustered from a running

Very closely imbricating,
            more or less silky.
The Cullings in this manner (I’ve added hyper-links beneath the words I needed or wanted to look up) goes for close to three pages, and it is quite a thing. It reminds me of an untitled poem (one of many) that Hugh MacDiarmid sets within Lucky Poet (1943, re-issued 1972 and 1994), his shaggy dog autobiography, in which he suggests that a botanist’s close study and special knowledge of a plant’s structure can add enormously to the aesthetic appreciation of its “complex beauty.”


Did you enjoy some, maybe even all of this stuff from the envelope? I sure did, so much so that – and this probably will come as no surprise – last night, while writing up this post, I decided to order up something else from Greying Ghost Press. So the chapbook Michigander, by B.J. Love, will soon enough be on its way, and I’m looking forward to getting it, for the (prose) poetry of Love, and the poetry the comes along with it, in the Greying Ghost envelope.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Poetry from the Law (part 5)

Vanessa Place
Tragodía – 1: Statement of Facts

(Los Angeles: Blanc Press, 2010)
9.25" x 6.5" / 427 pages
[a publish-on-demand book]

No poetry book this year will be more disturbing – upsetting, unsettling – to read than Tragodía – 1: Statement of Facts, by Vanessa Place.

Statement of Facts is in one sense, and perhaps mostly, a conceptual work: its text is entirely borrowed from another source and presented as poetry essentially as it was found. Such appropriation and re-purposing is a well worn and easy trick, especially in visual art (see Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, 1914/1964) but even in poetry, and for those reasons the “conceptual” in these things almost bores me.

But a re-purposed object or – since I focus here on poetry – text can still make for a compelling experience for the viewer/reader. For example, I with only minimal reservations rave for Kenneth Goldsmith’s Sports (2008), his entertaining poem that’s “but” the radio broadcast transcript of the longest (time-wise) nine inning major league baseball game.

Place’s poems in Tragodía aren’t about any game, and fun isn’t anywhere around. The poems here – 33 of them, in prose, each ranging in length from a few to around two dozen pages – are mostly accounts of human cruelty to each other. More precisely, and to cut the inappropriate in this instance de-gendered vocabulary, the poems with only rare exception concern male violence, mostly sexual and brutal, against women and children.

More specifically, the poems are re-purposed “Statement of Facts” taken word-for-word (names and other identifying information apparently has been changed) from legal briefs written by a lawyer and filed in the California Court of Appeal on behalf of convicted criminal defendants appealing their felony conviction(s). That these particular fact statements were all written originally by Place – she in other words self-appropriates her own legal work here, re-naming it poetry – isn’t at the readerly level as important as the nature of what the text actually is (and was).

My point being that it is legal writing, done pursuant to rules, traditions, and presumably considered strategy. And so compared to much else you will ever read, the prose of the Statement of Facts poems often turn prolix and turgid. I’m not just referring here to the frequent (and required in the law) citations to particular volumes and pages of the court reporter’s verbatim transcript of trial testimony.

In addition to the citations to the reporter’s transcripts, the sentences and paragraphs themselves sometimes are a slog. A part of this is the requirement that the lawyer present in all the evidence adduced at trial, resulting in all sorts of things having to be crammed into what might otherwise be a more stream-lined presentation. And there is also strategy at work, I think: it would appear in some cases that Place decided (and this is an acceptable and sometimes necessary legal strategy) that the interests of the client were best served by keeping the most vicious of the facts, and/or the most compelling evidence of guilt, as far away from the foreground as possible. In these situations, facts and facts and more facts swirl up from the language. The central facts of the crimes, or of the culpability of the named defendant, are not entirely hidden but seem more or less pushed towards the background amidst the factual swirl. Although this is an effective legal strategy, it makes for lousy prose poetry.

Still, the horror of the events that are central to each statement of fact – the crimes and pain suffered – is what comes through in Statement of Facts and that likely, and should, deeply disturb any reader. Quoting from the book isn’t necessary, I don’t think (besides, a lengthy segment is available via an on-line pdf, here), because a simple summary, essentially repeated from above, is shocking enough: the poems here are mostly about men raping (and/or committing other forcible sex offenses) against woman or children.

Awful may be just about the only word that comes close to describing what I felt after reading these re-purposed legal statements of facts now called poems. Awful as in ugh and puke grim nausea and what about kindness and exactly how much of this is there in this world and what about tenderness and even just one of these cases, even just one of these assaults, is too many and what the heck will or can change any of this?

All that, those feelings and questions and ideas, plus more, hits the gut and comes to mind while and after reading and piecing together the narratives nested in this legal prose. The first word of the book’s title – Tragodía – which presumably refers to the anglicized Greek word for an epic tragedy, a story with an unhappy ending – is entirely apt. It’s a very powerful, a very disturbing experience.

Another part of the experience of reading Statement of Facts arises from its paragraphs, scattered throughout the various statements, that recount evidence not directly about the actual criminal acts, but of matters relevant to the proof of their commission, including the mental state of the witness-victims. There is, for example, detailed information about Battered Women’s Syndrome, pimping strategies, the symptoms, treatment, and transmission of genital herpes, Child Sexual Accommodation Syndrome, sexual assault exams, the science and theory of DNA identification, theories for assessing the credibility of children, the techniques of on-line child predators, the effects of alcohol and other drugs, and street gang dynamics.

These matters are typical in sex crimes trials, but maybe not so among readers of poetry. The interest here, frankly, is educational, even didactic. Yes, some of it is not much more than trivia (e.g., “quintillion” has eighteen zeros) or the merely numerical (e.g., there are approximately 6.5 billion people in the world), but other evidence turned prose statement turned poetry strikes me as substantive information that everyone should know, or be reminded of, and think about. Battered Women’s Syndrome, for example, including the spectrum of abuse that can be inflicted and the disassociation and flat effect that can develop as a defense mechanism in cases in which extreme trauma is suffered, or the theory (and seemingly common sense notion) that there is no typical way for a child to disclose sexual abuse. In this way, Statement of Facts might help create a slightly more enlightened world.


I want to return, perhaps more directly, to the question of whether Statement of Facts is poetry. As discussed above, the text isn’t at all poetic, at least in any traditional way, in terms of its use of language or the way the subject is presented, and of course its words were written for another task entirely. Some might deem it uncreative, or unoriginal, and thus not poetry.

However, Place calls it poetry, and she’s entitled to do that. As for the rest of us, and what the world-at-large might think about whether it’s actually a poem, consider please the following statement once made by the late great artist Bruce Conner. It concerns visual art, but its principles are entirely applicable here:
I was working under the spaghetti theory of art. If you want to know if the spaghetti’s done, you throw it on the wall or ceiling, and if it sticks, it’s done. You put something in an art environment, you call it art, and if it sticks, it’s art.
And the same is true, I believe, with regard to Place’s book: she calls it poetry. I bought it and read it as such, and of course write about it as poetry here. So I’m in. Whether it ultimately continues to be called poetry, of course, depends on whether it sticks, with you dear readers of the glade, and everyone else, from here on out.


That I call Statement of Facts poetry doesn’t mean that I consider it a great work. As stated above, it is disturbing, powerful, and important. But even limiting myself to poems from the law I find Place’s book, compelling as it is, a lesser accomplishment by several magnitudes than the other poetry that similarly arise from or are more directly taken from legal texts, and which I’ve previously written about here in the glade (Poetry from the Law, parts 1 through 4, respectively). Those are (if you care to read my posts, click on each phrase that follows):
-- Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (two volumes of objectivist poems based on the facts of particular court decisions);
-- M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (a book-length work that both makes poems out of the language of an infamous 18th century British court decision concerning the deaths (read murder) of slaves aboard a ship;
-- Rachel Loden’s “Affidavit” (a poem that distills and re-arranges the language found in a court-filed declaration of a detective in a murder case); and
-- Loden’s “Last W & T” (a poem that incredibly pares down (while preserving the original order of) the language in Richard Nixon’s Last Will & Testament) .
Call me old-fashioned, but the work of the hand and mind of the respective creators of each of these four above-listed books or poems from the law impresses me far more, inspires me to read closer and re-read more often in much greater ways, than the simple act of self-appropriation that brought Place’s poems into being.


The text on the front dust jacket flap of Tragodía asserts that, “[b]y copying her briefs, Place does not violate any formal ethical standards or professional codes of conduct: all appellate briefs are matters of public record, i.e., could be found or read by anyone, as are the transcripts of the trials themselves.”

This might be right; I’m no expert in formal standards and codes of conduct. However, the dust jacket statement doesn’t seem to directly address a concern I have about what Place has done, which involves the question of whether the re-purposing of her legal work gives rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest.

A lawyer has a duty to serve (to zealously advocate) the interests of the client. Place’s re-purposing in Tragodía of her client-advocacy work as poetry raises for me the question of whether she had in mind, at the time she wrote the statements now-turned to poetry, any thought of how they would read as creative works. That question suggests the possibility of the appearance of a conflict: was Place the lawyer working in the best interests of her clients, or in any way, even partly, in the interests of her work as a poet?

Let me be clear: there’s nothing intrinsic in the Statement of Facts texts that suggests Place wrote these statements with re-purposing as poetry in mind. It’s the appearance of a conflict that concerns me, the possibility that others might reasonably wonder if two projects, the legal and poetic, were going on simultaneously. It’d be entirely different, of course, if Place had appropriated any of the thousands of similar fact statements written by other lawyers that are in the public record. In any event, the question about the appearance of conflict is one that can be, should be, addressed by Place and her clients and her and the courts or others that appoint her to these cases.


Place also alluded, in an e-mail to me several months ago, to the relation of her Statement of Facts to the discussion of statements and discourse in Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (English translation 1972). I’ve waded through the Foucaultian prose in that book more than once, including his discussions of positivity, totalities, transfers, and methods of systematizing already existing propositions (italics all his), and I’m sorry I can’t bring much of it through the keyhole here. However, I mention it because it may bear on Place’s intent here. Perhaps those who work well above my pay grade here can make something of it.


Let me close with a few words about Marjorie Perloff’s recent pronouncements about Statement of Facts, and her remarks about the book in a three paragraph blurb or mini-essay that Place and her publisher print on the back of the book. Perloff’s words are important to consider, both because in certain ways they are outrageously wrong and even offensive (and thus shocking coming from Perloff, a respected reader-critic), and because they serve as a way to further discuss certain aspects of Place’s work.

In June, Stephanie Young reported that Perloff at a conference remarked that Statement of Facts shows that the rape victims written about are “at least as bad as or worse than the rapists.” Perloff subsequently explained that Place’s book shows that “the culture of rape is largely a socio-economic problem” but she reiterates that the rapists are “not always «worse» people than those in the larger network involved.” Perloff also exhorted, “Read the book!”

Well, I have read the book, several times, and I still find Perloff’s views outrageously off-base, whether as apparently originally uttered or as she elaborated on them. The idea that sexual assault victims are as bad as their attackers, either as a general matter or in the particulars presented by Place, suggests either an ultra-retro or extremely misguided thinking that I find shocking. I also don’t get Perloff’s claim of rape as a socio-economic problem; she fails here to understand that Place’s cases necessarily reflect a limited sub-set of sexual assault matters, since Place is appointed to represent those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Place was very recently asked about Perloff’s statements. Place indicated she found it interesting that it was expected that there was something for her to clarify, and then remarked that Perloff’s comments “neatly [. . . ] prove[] the point that whatever is in the text is brought there solely by the one experiencing the text. The text is simply a conceptual portmanteau . . . .

Well, I don’t buy that counsel, or poet. As Duchamp suggests in “The Creative Act” (click here to listen to a mp3 of him reading his text) a work is created in the dynamic somewhere between the maker and the viewer. And so, I say that both the lawyer poet and the reader here create Tragodía – 1: Statement of Facts. On top of that, this work isn’t simply a “pormanteau” for a concept such that its substance can be ignored.

Still, when faced with the troubling comments of Perloff, I can understand Place not wanting to say anything. Silence is an effective and polite way of keeping one’s distance from a cluster-fuck like this.

But this case is not so simple. Place it seems to me has largely hooked her Statement of Facts wagon to Perloff’s star: she and her publisher give the top half of the rear cover of the book to comments from Perloff. Unless we assume Place was wholly ignorant of what Perloff wrote (impossible, I think, since Place also thanks Perloff at the front of the book), she, the poet, has some responsibility for how her book is being put out there in that back-cover blurb / mini-essay.

In that regard, some of Perloff’s rear dust-jacket comments are perplexing. Perloff begins by quoting directly from one of Place’s statements, a case involving foricble sex crimes committed against two females, a seventeen year old named Amanda G. and that woman’s mother. Perloff suggests that statement is an example of how the book raises questions regarding what is a fact, what is fact and interpretation, and what is truth.

Of course, ontological questioning, asking what really happened, and how we know, or think we know what we know, given the subjectivity of perception and the riddles of memory, are crucial concerns. And these concerns are no less important in cases of sexual assault and other serious crimes. Rashomon, anyone? Plus, there are factually innocent and wrongfully convicted people in our prisons, and questions regarding guilt must be carefully considered.

The problem, however, is that there is really not much if anything that suggests real doubt in the statement about the testimony of Amanda G. and her mother (it’s at pages 107-120 of the book) cited by Perloff in her rear cover mini-essay. There are a few inconsistencies in the testimony of the mother, but overall, the testimony of the female victims is persuasive and compelling about what happened to them, particularly given certain biological evidence and the contradictory and inculpatory statements the defendant made after arrest. I also didn’t find reasons to doubt victim testimony in the vast majority of the other statements presented as poems in Place’s book. As such, Perloff’ comments about the nature of facts and truth in Statement of Facts a kind of academic over-reaching, a theory or construct entirely or largely imposed.

(By the way, being the curious sort, and to double-check what I concluded after reading the Amanda G. statement, I looked up the court decision in the case for which Place wrote this particular statement of facts. This was easy via WestLaw, a standard computer-based research tool for lawyers (I also in this way quickly found other decisions involving other poems in Statement of Facts). In the case involving Amanda G. , People v. T[. . . ], the appellate court affirmed the defendant’s convictions for multiple sex crimes and upheld the sentence of 77 years to life. No claim was made on appeal regarding a lack of evidence or witness veracity. It is mentioned that at trial the defendant pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of the mother, but as I’ve indicated above, I think that could not have been a particularly strong argument based on the factual statement Place wrote.)

Perloff in her rear-cover blurb/mini-essay also characterizes as “surreal” the description that Place provides of the sexual assault scene involving the teenager. Look, I can’t deny Perloff her reading response, okay? But I’ve read a lot of surrealist texts, original and neo-, and I can’t fathom what she means. The description does not at all seem hallucinatory like a dream, a fantasy, or in unreal. For me, the reading of this text resulted in exactly the opposite impression. Place’s statement/poem, with its details about a man with a knife holding it against the neck of a teenager/young women, forcibly licking her vagina, with the teenager pleading and crying and then subsequently vomiting after identifying the assailant for the police, seem very, very real.

Perloff’s The Poetics of Indeterminancy (1981), and many other books she has written, long ago established her as an important reader of and writer on post-modern, avant-garde, and/or experimental poetry. I’ve been led to a lot of wonderful places in poetry through her ideas.

As such, her mis-steps here with Statement of Facts are disappointing. I hope they do not signal a period of inconsistency, similar to the great Willie Mays’s painful-to-watch-given-how-he-used-to-be stumbling with the New York Mets in 1972 and 1973. We shall see. Perloff has a new book slated for later this year, and what do you know it’s called Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. I’d wager good money that Place’s work, and much else similar and related to it, will be discussed at length. Once again, we shall see (read).


[Addendum, August 19, 2010: responses to the latter part of this post from Marjorie Perloff and Vanessa Place can be found in the comments, below (user names “Anonymous” and “VanessaP,” respectively).

Additional comments on Perloff’s written explanation of what she said at the conference, including by Juliana Spahr, David Buuck, Heriberto Yepez, and others, plus additional comments by Perloff herself, can be found here (click to go), beneath a post by Stephanie Young on her blog. Some of the responses there to Perloff’s written comments are fairly characterized as scathing.]