Thursday, June 26, 2014

No Brown M&Ms: A Model Contract for Literary Performances

Those of you who have booked me for a lecture, poetry reading, radio spot, celebrity roast, bris, or beauty pageant have been getting off easy—or so my attorney, Fallon McPhael Jr., Esq., of the firm Try & McPhael, tells me.  He and his team have racked up a phenomenal number of billable hours in crafting my new standard contact for performances, which I post here for the edification of all.  Please note that while the contract does not specify the presence of a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones picked out, my head security goon, Waldemar, gets antsy in the absence of such refreshments.  You do not want Waldemar to be antsy in the Green Room.


WHEREAS, the organizer identified on the Signature Page (“Organizer”) wishes to procure certain services; and
                WHEREAS, Robert Archambeau (“Archambeau”) is willing to provide certain services; and
                WHEREAS, Organizer and Archambeau (each, a “Party” and collectively the “Parties”) intend to attach to their proposed transaction the appearance of legality,
                THEREFORE, the Parties agree to this Standard Contract for Performance (“Agreement”) as follows:
Organizer agrees to pay to Archambeau $____________ upon execution of the Agreement.
Organizer agrees to cooperate with Archambeau in characterizing the nature of the Payment for tax purposes.  This includes (without limitation) documenting the payment as Payment for services OR, at Archambeau’s sole discretion, as any of the following (all listed on IRS Publication 525 (2013) as categories of “Other Income”):
  • alimony
  • a bribe
  • an energy conservation subsidy
  • Exxon Valdez settlement income
  • a railroad retirement annuity payment
  • an IRS whistleblower award
Organizer shall arrange Archambeau’s transportation.  This transportation must be so smooth and continuous that Archambeau does not realize that he is being transported.  He must be able to lightly hold a cup of coffee during the entire experience and be assured that not a single drop will fall outside the cup for transport-related reasons.
Organizer shall arrange for a private area where, upon arrival, Archambeau may shed all his clothes, be measured by Savile Row tailors, and have a suit manufactured for him on the spot before proceeding to the performance venue.
On the way to the performance venue, Archambeau shall be driven through the streets in a chariot, in the manner of a Roman triumph.  A sad-faced clown shall accompany him, whispering to Archambeau to remember that he will die.
Immediately prior to the performance, Organizer shall provide Archambeau with a small conference room, five (5) packs of index cards, a Pilot G2 black ink pen, and a xylophone, which if played properly will produce an air of melancholy that may settle over the entire world.  A crock of poutine shall be manned at all times, with a crooked sign attached saying “All You CARE To Eat”.
In exchange for the Payment, Archambeau shall provide a Performance.  Any of the following may constitute a Performance, satisfying the terms of this Agreement:
  • inaudible murmuring, mixed with beatboxing
  • involuntary baptism of one or more audience member
  • an a capella performance of the Squeeze hit, “Black Coffee In Bed”
  • bare-knuckle boxing with former United States Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin, or other former United States Poet Laureate of similar girth
  • founding a sovereign state
  • popping a wheelie (bicycle)
  • failing to pop a wheelie (unicycle)
  • polling the audience on the Oxford comma, pitting sides against one another
  • waxing nostalgic about library reference cards
  • making innocent comments about other nationalities
  • explaining in detail how to sort recyclables
  • disparaging the manhood of beloved comedy icon Bob Newhart
  • tearfully apologizing to beloved comedy icon Bob Newhart
  • something about poetry
This list is provided solely for purposes of illustration.  A Performance will consist of any action or inaction taken by Archambeau during the designated time of the event.
Organizer shall make have ready to following songs to be played on pre-set cues before, during, and immediately after Archambeau makes his presentation:
  • Gary Glitter, “Rock and Roll, Part 2”
  • The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, “Shake Your Moneymaker”
  • Bananarama, “Cruel Summer”
  • Bing Crosby, “Little Drummer Boy”
  • Deee-Lite, “Groove Is In the Heart”
Archambeau shall require, and Organizer shall provide, an entourage (“Entourage”) to consist of the following members:
Pursuer of Thieves to confront any audience member who may have stolen any personal item or idea from Archambeau, as determined in Archambeau’s sole discretion.  The Pursuer of Thieves shall be dressed in full military uniform, including with a spiked helmet of the style favored by the Kaiser in the First World War.
Hype Man or Woman to exhort the audience with false promises and blandishments, to shout nonsense excitedly, to gibber and moan, such that crowd is in mass hysteria before Archambeau utters a single word.
Fastidious Belgian with whom Archambeau may share private, disparaging remarks regarding the Organizer, the audience, and America.   The Fastidious Belgian shall also be in charge of the frites.
NOTE:  Belgian, not French!  Fastidious, not fussy!
An Adoring Biographer who Archambeau may intentionally disillusion by first refusing to answer questions directly, and then by bluntly stating the harder truths of a poet/critic’s life.
Frenemy of Archambeau’s who may say, or to whom may be said, “we’re not so different, you and I…”
All members of the Entourage shall be employees or contractors of the Organizer.  While Entourage members will be subject to Archambeau’s direction, under no circumstances shall Archambeau be required to pay bail for any of them.
In addition to the Entourage, Archambeau shall bring, and Organizer shall provide room, board, and a stipend of $100 a day each for, a retainer (“Retainer”) to consist of the following members:
Lila Archambeau Impersonator.  In the event of audience unrest, the Lila Archambeau Impersonator may rush onto the stage to plead for Archambeau’s life.  Due to the associated danger, Archambeau employs a variety of diminutive adult actresses to play this role.  Many actresses willing to play this role have a criminal background.
NOTE:  A designated indoor smoking MUST must be provided for the Lila Archambeau Impersonator.  
NOTE:  All Organizer employees who have backstage access must be cautioned not to in any way provoke the Lila Archambeau Impersonator.
An Illegal Cheese Mule.  Self-explanatory.
The Parties agree that all disputes between them shall be committed to binding arbitration (“Arbitration”), as described below.  Organizer shall bear the cost of arbitration.
Organizer shall select an island, atoll, or archipelago for Arbitration (“Arbitration Venue”).  Organizer shall assure that the Arbitration Venue is without any human habitation, and is not accessible to anyone other than those involved in the Arbitration.
Organizer shall bring twelve (12) infants under the age of six months to the Arbitration Venue (“Jurors”).  Each Juror shall be assigned to one of three Juror Panels.  
The First Juror panel shall be the Deontologists, or Deons.  The Deon Jurors shall be trained to articulate and uphold moral imperatives, whatever the cost.  Their sigil shall be a man on fire, refusing to douse it with water that isn’t his.
The Second Juror panel shall be the Stenographers.  The Stenographer Jurors shall be raised to observe and record, expertly taking in all sense-data.  In all other matters, they should be lean and ignorant.
The Third Juror panel shall be the Whoopsies.  The Whoopsie Jurors shall be raised by a team of improv comics, who will teach them that life is a joke, and the only rational response to tragedy is to take audience suggestions and be ready to imitate a bicycle horn.
Until they every Juror reaches the age of 18, the Juror Panels shall be kept isolated from one another.  When each Juror is at least 18 years old, they shall be locked in a building with one another and a Henry Fonda impersonator.  The Jurors will then have one day to decide unanimously the dispute between the Parties.  Should they fail to do so, the Jurors will be deported from the Arbitration Venue and Organizer shall convene a new jury from scratch.
This Agreement shall be the entire agreement between the Parties.  This Agreement completely preempts and displaces all other legal relations between the parties, such as might otherwise be imposed by contract, custom, municipal or tribal law, state law, federal law, the law of the sea, the law of averages, or Murphy’s Law.    
/signatures, etc/

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Twenty Poets Talking: Poetry & Its Communities

Gently Read Literature, the excellent little magazine edited by Daniel Casey, has folded up shop.  I only wrote for GRL once, in the form of a review of Tony Leuzzi's Passwords Primeval in the Winter 2014 issue.  Leuzzi's book, published by BOA Editions in 2012, is a collection of interviews with a laudably wide range of poets.  Here, with Casey's kind permission, is the text of my essay.  I focus on the interviews with Kevin Killian, Karen Volkman, and Billy Collins.  What fascinated me were the different kinds of poetic communities from which, and for which, they wrote.

Twenty Poets Talking

“Don’t tell me what the poets are doing, don’t tell me that they’re talking tough,” sang the Tragically Hip back in 1998, “don’t tell me that they’re anti-social, somehow not anti-social enough.” Editor and interviewer Tony Leuzzi has certainly managed to get the poets talking in Passwords Primeval: the transcripts of his interviews with twenty very different poets, taken together, run to close to 350 pages. The book is most likely to be dipped into rather than read straight through: one imagines its destiny involving resting on library shelves until people interested in the work of a particular poet pluck it down to read that poet’s contribution. But one of the most interesting things to emerge when one does read all twenty interviews back-to-back is the lack of anti-social attitudes among the poets. Most of them seem to speak out of, and to, defined communities, the sum of which make up the varied, fragmented, and (despite reports to the contrary) extensive readership of contemporary American poetry.

Leuzzi’s interview with Kevin Killian shows the clearest case of a poet speaking to, and for, a particular community. Some of Killian’s community orientation shows through in his choice of pronouns: “We wanted to infuse our lives with the rigors of theoretical discourse,” he’ll say, or “I think all of us in the New Narrative [movement] approached the idea of being in a movement, of working collectively, with various degrees of seriousness.” It’s we and us with Killian—with the collective pronouns referring to a group of writers and artists associated with the New Narrative movement which sought to bring poststructural theory and autobiography close together. The movement has very particular time/space co-ordinates: one feels, reading the interview, how very formative the San Francisco of the 1980s was for Killian and his associates. This was ground zero for the AIDS epidemic, and a time of great personal pain for Killian, who watched helplessly as friend after friend succumbed to the plague. “Every time I tried to write something it sounded ridiculous—hokey, sentimental,” he says. “It seemed the enormity of the crisis dwarfed any individual response.” On the suggestion of Kathy Acker, he began to use existing cultural artifacts—initially the films of Dario Argento—as a means to address the crisis, writing through them and treating them as if they were allegories of the epidemic. The resulting surrealism became, at last, a form befitting the tragedy of the epidemic: in Killian’s words, it “corresponded to the surrealism we lived through in the 80s and 90s.” Some of the comfort Killian felt in this form of writing came from the way it released him from his own conscious writerly will and allowed the poem to come forth from the encounter with another artist’s material: indeed, Killian’s poetics are clearly those of a writer who seeks to put the controlling intelligence in abeyance. Hence comes Killian’s love of Jack Spicer, who liked to think of poems as alien transmissions coming to him from space, and hence comes Killian’s statement that many of his poems “unrolled from a place outside my own will.” The impulse for Killian’s work clearly comes from the deeply felt needs of a man caught in the midst of a terrible disaster, and he writes very much for the benefit of people in the same circumstance: the goal he and his friends had, he says, was “to write for a whole, if limited, community, ourselves and our friends and lovers, and one or two benighted souls we imagined actually needed us in the hinterlands.”

It is to Leuzzi’s credit that his collection of interviews includes an experimental, often underground or alternative press poet like Killian along with former poet laureate Billy Collins, perhaps the best-selling American poet of our time. Collins readily acknowledges the many different readerships for American poetry, noting that he and John Ashbery “draw on very different audiences” and that “it’s not like I’m taking readers away from him, or that he’s taking readers away from me.” The audience Collins reaches is often one that lies outside the considerable one made up of other poets: when Collins tells us that he “is not predisposed to be interested in the psychic misery of the poet…. Who would be?” he reveals an orientation toward a very different community than the one that animates the work of Kevin Killian. Where Killian writes from and for an artistic and literary scene, Collins pitches his work toward a larger community, one we might find in any of the affluent American suburbs where copies of The New Yorker grace the coffee tables. While this audience might be considered more mainstream than Killian’s by any number of standards, it is not an audience with which we readily associate poetry. When Collins reflects on his early interest in poetry we see the tension between the modern (and, behind that, the Romantic) notion of the poet-as-outsider and Collins’ sense of himself as belonging to a broader community:

Ever since I came across a picture of Edgar Allan Poe when I was an adolescent, I wanted to be a poet. I’d never seen anyone who looked like that in my life! My parents didn’t look like that, that’s for sure. It suggested there was a realm inhabited by people completely different from the ones around me, that is, middle-class, suburban people. I wanted to be with them, find out who they were.

So far, we seem to be in the realm of Stephen Dedalus or a thousand other young men dreaming of escaping from a dull bourgeois life into the world of art. But there’s a twist:

But, as a poet, I was sort of hobbled by doubt, so I didn’t run with the pack. I didn’t go to poetry readings very much; I didn’t go out with poets; I’ve never taken a workshop.

The struggle, for Collins, was that of how to write for a bourgeois audience in a form that has by-and-large become dissociated from that audience. More than any other American poet of his generation, he has found a way to do just that by the use of humor, striking metaphor, and by (as he puts it) “simple diction” and “predictable” line breaks. We couldn’t be much farther than the world of Dario Argento pastiche that animates Kevin Killian’s work and speaks to his community. What Collins and Killian have in common, though, is the quest—ultimately successful—to connect with the community that matters to them.

No discussion of contemporary American poetry and its communities in our time would be complete without the mention of that 400 pound gorilla sitting at the poets’ table, the creative writing industry. Much-maligned, often by the very people who devote a great deal of time and money to gain their M.F.A. degrees, the world of the creative writing programs has nevertheless provided livings for many poets, as well as a context in which their works are read and appreciated. When we read Leuzzi’s interview with Karen Volkman, we also get a sense of how the world of the creative writing programs has had an influence on the creation of poetry. Volkman, who teaches in the prestigious M.F.A. program at the University of Montana, describes the genesis of her series of elliptical sonnets as part of her teaching process, coming about when she “started reading sonnets in preparation for a forms class I was scheduled to teach.” Just as we can see the qualities of Killian’s or Collins’ work as things rooted in the particular communities to which they speak, so also can we see Volkman’s formal concerns as connected to the poetry/academe nexus at which she and I (and, quite probably, you) dwell. While Killian’s poetry sought a way to reflect on the crisis of AIDS in San Francisco and Collins’ poetry worked to connect with a suburban readership, Volkman’s poetry, in foregrounding the elliptical, connects with communities that come to poetry for language and its ambiguities. Indeed, many of her lines can, she says, be read as “propositions for a poetics” and she is wary of the kind of reduction of language to statement that a poet like Collins courts, worrying that “putting the borders of particular reference” on poems “is a kind of violence.” This love of poetry for its polysemous multiplicity of meaning and its irreducibility to paraphrase has animated professors of poetry at least since the days of the New Criticism, and animates us still—Volkman even describes herself speaking to her students about how she’s been reading a certain poem for years and how she is “still not sure what to make of it.” Clearly Volkman loves this sort of ambiguity in poetry, and introduces it to a community of students and colleagues in many ways, including through her own works.

Leuzzi’s other interviewees include Michael Waters, Gary Young, Dorianne Laux, Gary Soto, Patricia Smith, Scott Cairns, Jane Hirschfield, Martín Espada, Gerald Stern, Nathalie Handal, Stephen Dobyns, Dara Wier, Bin Ramke, Mark Doty, Carol Frost, Robert Glück, and Arthur Sze. His methods involve both written and oral conversation, with the poets given the chance to revise the transcripts in consultation with the editor. The effect is in many ways impressive, combining the feel of spontaneity with a level of detail and consideration more often found in essays than in interviews. The method does give something like the effect of an authorized biography, though: there are no moments when the poets seem as if they have been taken off guard. This, itself, speaks of a kind of civility on Leuzzi’s part, a civility that has enabled him to travel comfortably to many different corners of the far-flung American poetry scene.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Félix Fénéon, or: Modernity is Flat

Félix Fénéon, in Signac's painting

Skepticism about morality is what is decisive.  The ending of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some metaphysical beyond, leads to nihilism.  'Everything lacks meaning' (the untenability of [the Christian] interpretation of the world, upon which a huge amount of energy has been lavished, awakens a suspicion that all intepretations of the world are false.
            —Nietzsche, from The Will to Power.

I'd been poking away at Félix Fénéon's Nouvelles en trois lignes on and off for what must have been weeks when it hit me: modernity is flat!  Let me explain.

Fénéon is a fascinating figure.  An art critic, an anarchist, quite probably a one-time terrorist, and the man who invented the term "neo-impressionism," he was never really famous, but he was ubiquitous on the Parisian art and literature scenes of the 1880s and 90s.  He edited Rimbaud and Lautréamont, championed pointillism, and he's the figure near the center of the spirals in what is probably Paul Signac's best known painting.  An odd man, his Nouvelles en trois lignes is an odd book: it's a compendium of more than 1,200 little narratives, most three lines long, originally written for the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906.  The narratives tell compressed stories of miscellaneous news events of no great significance.  We don't get history book stuff here, but what the French call "faits-divers"—mostly true crime stuff from the provinces, or weird little events that don't fit in any more formal context.  It's a minor form, to be sure, but Fénéon is a genius with it: his delivery is deadpan, and even within the restrictions of a few sentences he often manages to be wry, or to give an ironic twist to the events.  The title given to the collection of these faits-divers, Nouvelles en trois lignes, is sort of perfect: it can mean "the news in three lines," but also "novels in three lines."  The English translation goes with the latter, and it is a shame there was no way to keep the double sense of the French original.

Despite the elegant simplicity of the individual items in Nouvelles en trois lignes, I had a hard time getting through the whole thing, because the pieces, read in mass, become enervating.  Even with the often-sensational subject matter, they become, en masse, an endurance test: there's no development, virtually no judgment of events, no direction to them.  There's a clear tone—removed, objective, yet ever so slightly ironic—but it never changes, so the narrator becomes difficult company to keep.  Everything is seen from the same perspective.  Horrors and trivialities come to us in the same voice, with little or no difference in judgment.

Maybe a few examples, chosen at random, will make the point (these, which occur consecutively in the book, are in Luc Sante's excellent translation):

At Menzeldjémil, Tunisia, Mme Chassoux, an officer's wife, would have been murdered had her corset not stopped the blade.

Fearless boys of 13 and 11, Deligne and Julien were going off "to hunt in the desert."  They were brought back to Paris from Le Havre.

A virgin of Djiqjelli, 13, subject to lewd advances by a 10-year old, killed him with three thrusts of her knife.

In the heat of argument, Palambo, an Italian of Bausset, Var, was mortally wounded by his chum Genvolino.

Some people, believed to be the same ones who attempted a derailment on Tuesday, tried to set fire to the Labat house in Saint-Mars, Finistère.

Eugène Périchot, of Pailles, near Saint-Maixent, entertained at his home Mme Lemartier.  Eugène Dupuis came to fetch her.  They killed him.  Love.

You get the idea.  There's a flatness of delivery here, re-enforced by the accumulation of examples.  The narrator is almost transparent in his objectivity: only in the word "fearless," attached to the two naïve boys, and "love" attached to the murder of Eugène Dupuis do we get something like analysis or opinion.  And it is the opinion of someone a little removed, a little world-weary, a little like our American stereotype of a certain kind of jaded Parisian.

It is in this very flatness, the thing that makes Nouvelles en trois lignes difficult to read through, that its significance lies.  The worldwide gathering of information, and the availability of specifics about names and places represents an impressive, and distinctly modern, information regime.  You couldn't assemble a daily paper featuring these kind of events before the late nineteenth century, with its telegraph cables and cheap newsprint and centralized police bureaucracies keeping records.  This kind of communication is native to modernity.  As Nietzche knew, modernity gives us an impressive machinery for information delivery "The entire apparatus of knowledge," he wrote in The Will to Power, "is an apparatus for abstraction and simplification."  But Nietzsche also knew something else: that modernity was largely emptied of systematically articulated values.  After what he saw as Christianity's self-destruction, we had no established moral framework.  Dante was able to articulate an intricate, multi-leveled, continuous moral universe—a vertical universe extending from the deepest circles of the inferno to the highest celestial haunts of truth and beauty.  But modernity is stripped of that condition.  In a way, Fénéon's Nouvelles en trois lignes  can be seen as our Divine Comedy: it gives us a universe full of fast communication, and lurid sensations, a world flattened out and shorn of any vertical scale of vice and virtue. Fénéon's moral universe, like his tone, is flat.  And, for many, it is our home.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Worst of Teachers, & How Not To Be Him

My teacher was not Satan, but he shared some qualities with Donald Sutherland's character in "Animal House."

I was just reading some advice on teaching that asked me to think about the worst teacher I ever had, and consider what he or she had done wrong.  There was a fifth grade teacher who was authoritarian because she was insecure, and who kept getting factual things wrong. She did not appreciate being corrected by her charges (often by me, precocious in intellect, deficient in tact).  But now that I look back I’d put all that down to what I imagine to have been her inexperience.  It is quite probable that she became better.

No, the worst teacher I ever had—a man for whom I feel only compassion—was an English professor from whom I took a Brit lit survey, the kind of course I often teach now.  I don’t think I’m alone in having caught the whiff of failure rising from him: his career was far from stellar.  Poking around on the internet just now I see he left his first job at a branch of a big state university after six years: likely from failing to make tenure (this despite his impeccable ivy league pedigree).  He landed at the undistinguished, provincial university where I studied and, after more than thirty years of service, retired as an associate professor, never having made the top rank.  Moreover, he was denied emeritus status upon retirement: a sign that the department may have held him in less than high esteem.  As an academic, his name was writ on water.

I was too young and too involved in what we might call "amateur pharmaceuticals" in my freshman year to have much of a sense of what was going on around me, but I knew something was wrong when the professor in question grew angry with the class and demanded we split into a front section of those who wanted to participate and a back section that didn’t.  Two people moved to the front on the first day of this new policy, but by the second they’d crept back into the great mass of the unwilling.  Clearly the professor felt things were going badly, and just as clearly his remedy had failed.

But just what did he do wrong?  Well, that confrontational attitude toward the students was a part of it. I think a larger part was his failure to give us a sense of what we were doing, of how any part of the course related to the whole.  He titled each class section – “The Last Romantics,” say, or “The Victorian City”—but no one I knew ever seemed to pick up the thread.

And that’s not all.  Larger even than the directionlessness was the sense he gave of no longer caring much for what he was doing.  He seemed like a man who knew he’d failed to convey an enthusiasm for literature, and failed for so long his initial enthusiasm had, itself, begun to fade.  Indeed, he had the air of a man in whom all the appetites of life had failed.  Later, when I became friends with a student who had known the professor’s son, I heard that the professor used to take his family for drives in the country every Sunday.  The son had asked why, and the prof had replied “because there has to be something to do, even if there’s nowhere to go.”  It seemed like quiet desperation, and quiet desperation rarely inspires the young.

Since we're discussing teachers, I feel I should look for a lesson.  I suppose the lesson here for teachers, if there is one, is to be a little bit in love with things.  The students will notice.