Thursday, July 23, 2015

Robert Creeley, Poetry Warrior

Great news! The new issues of two of my favorite literary journals, The Laurel Review and The Notre Dame Review, have dropped from the sky.  The latest Laurel Review is a special prose poetry issue, and includes two pieces from my forthcoming remix extravaganza, The Kafka Sutra (in which the parables of Kafka are retold as if they were a Sanskrit sex manual).  The Notre Dame Review features a raft of great stuff, as well as "Robert Creeley: Poetry Warrior," a little something I wrote about The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, a very fine edition prepared by Rod Smith, Peter Baker, and Kaplan Harris.  It begins like this:
            “The book,” wrote Robert Creeley to Rod Smith, who was then hard at work on the volume in question, Creeley’s Selected Letters, “will certainly ‘tell a story.’”  Now that the text of that book has emerged from Smith’s laptop and rests between hard covers, it’s a good time to ask just what story those letters tell.  Certainly it isn’t a personal one. Creeley was a New Englander, through and through, and of the silent generation to boot.  Yankee reticence blankets the letters too thickly for us to feel much of the texture of Creeley’s quotidian life, beyond whether he feels (to use his favored idiom) he’s “making it” through the times or not.  Instead, the letters, taken together, tell an intensely literary story—and, as the plot develops, an institutional, academic one.  Call this story “From the Outside In,” maybe.  Or, better, treat it as one of the many Rashomon-like eyewitness accounts of that contentious epic that goes by the title The Poetry Wars.
            If you, like me, you entered the little world of American poetry in the 1990s, you found the Cold War that was ending in the realm of politics to be in full effect in poetry.  What had begun as a brushfire conflict between rival journals and anthologies in the fifties and early sixties had settled into an institutionalized rivalry, with an Iron Curtain drawn between the mutually suspicious empires of Iowa City and Buffalo.  The longstanding Iowa Writers Workshop found itself in a geo-poetic stalemate with a younger, more radical opponent, the Poetics Program at SUNY–Buffalo, which Creeley helped found in 1991, and which formalized Buffalo as the institutional home for poets who rankled at the idea that history had ended with Robert Lowell.  For many young poets, it seemed one had to pick a side, and treat the rival camp with deep mistrust, if not contempt.  For others, it all seemed a bit pointless, especially the rhetoric of resentment emanating from Buffalo, perhaps the best-endowed poetry program in the nation at the time.  Reading Creeley’s Selected Letters, which begins with a wartime letter from Creeley to his family and ends with an email he sent two weeks before his death in 2005, we get a view from the trenches of the postwar poetry wars, from their beginnings to a time when they were fading into literary history.  We get, too, a vivid picture of the outsider status, or non-status, of innovative poets like Creeley in their formative years (“we do not have any status as writers in this country” he wrote in 1956).
The whole piece is available in print and in a pdf online here. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Coming This Fall: The Kafka Sutra

Behold! The cover of my next book, The Kafka Sutra, due out this fall from MadHat Press.  The title sequence is one of the odder things I've done—a rewriting of the Kama Sutra as if Kafka had written it; or a rewriting of Kafka's parables as an ancient Sanskrit sex manual.  Accompanying the series are artworks by Sarah Conner, such as this:

Thanks to Sarah; and to Moxie (the scariest belly-dancer in Chicago) for modeling for the cover; to Kriss Abigal for her amazing photo, and to Valerie for work on the layout.  This is my favorite cover yet among my books, in part because the "belly dancer in a top hat" look captures something of both Kafka and the Kama Sutra.

Also, thanks to the great David Kirby, who says this on the back of the jacket:
I’m pretty sure I was the only one reading poetry as I waited for my car to be serviced, but certainly I was the one who rocked the other customers out of their torpor with a belly laugh – not an unrelated occurrence, since I was reading Robert Archambeau’s addictive poems and had just gotten to the one in which men are told they can either become a husband or the lover of another man’s wife; naturally they all choose the second option, and the result is that soon there are no more wives. Then again, a rich irony suffuses all these poems. If you’re heading to the dealership and are looking for brainy, funny lines delivered with a rueful sigh, The Kafka Sutra is definitely the book for you.
And the immortal Andrei Codrescu, who says:
Archambeau has found the cartilage that keeps the body flexible and life Kafkaesque by inventing a musical technique that keeps life’s surging anarchy personalized through the universally usable Kama Sutra.  I’m using it right now!
And to the gracious Maxine Chernoff, who writes:
Reading Robert Archambeau's vastly engaging book, The Kafka Sutra, I feel as if I have gone on several vacations, a safari, and a trip into imaginative space: his far-ranging mind "riffs on, or remixes, replies to, or makes deeply unfaithful translations of what others have written." The book has sound, technique, wit, grace, staggering inventiveness, and above all generosity: from supplying Kafka with a deeply sexualized "new" body of work to celebrating luminaries from David Bowie to John Milton it is all splendidly here, in aces.
And, last but by no means least, to Wendy Doniger, Sanskrit scholar, Kama Sutra translator, and Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago who, after reading The Kafka Sutra, said:
Archambeau’s absolutely hilarious Kama Sutra spoof made me howl with laughter! 
MadHat Press is to be held responsible for my crimes against literature.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How to Be A Classic: Four or Five Versions of Edgar Allan Poe

Even though the concept of a literary canon has been in tatters for decades, the fact of a literary canon still, for better or for worse, remains.  And one of the names least likely to be dislodged from the de facto canon of American literature in any foreseeable future is that of Edgar Allan Poe.  But why? One answer is simple, or seems to be: that Poe was an inventor, an astonishing inventor.  Indeed, he was the Tesla or Edison of literature, and from the laboratory of his genius came both entirely new modes of writing and crucial refinements upon still-developing genres.  But as any infomercial seen during insomnia-ridden night in a hotel with lousy cable options makes abundantly clear, not all inventions matter.  Many of Poe's did: they had staying power, influenced important writers, and spoke to generations of readers. This, I think, had as much to do with Poe's moment as with the man himself.

When Poe's short writing career began, there was surprisingly little literary infrastructure in America.  Literacy rates were climbing quickly, and the days when an American writer had to send a manuscript off to England to have it printed were long gone, but the landscape was utterly unlike what we know today.  Not only were there no foundations, or grants, or MFA programs—there were very few places to publish, and those tended to reach fairly ill-defined audiences: a century later writers could send science fiction stories to science fiction magazines, adventure stories to magazines sold specifically to boys who dreamed of jungle exploration, stories with literary pretence to stalwart little literary journals, and so forth.  But Poe had to make his way in the dark.  When he came on the scene the number of Americans who had made a living by the pen could be counted on the fingers of one hand (Washington Irving is the only name still recognized) and what the public wanted, what they were willing to pay to read, remained a mystery (Irving tried all kinds of things: pop history, observational letters, hopped-up folktales, you name it).  So Poe tried everything: his story "The Balloon-Hoax" was initially published in a newspaper and passed off as fact; and his proliferation of inventions was in large measure a sounding-out of the public, a matter of throwing all kinds of words at the wall of fame and fortune and hoping something would stick.  His was a time of the open literary frontier, of risky ventures in an unknown landscape with the hope of vast rewards.

When we think of Poe's limited success in his short lifetime, and his posthumous canonical ubiquity, we might remember Gertrude Stein's thoughts about posterity in her essay "Composition as Explanation":
No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept.  The things refused are only important if unexpectedly somebody happens to need them.
Poe's inventions didn't quite take before his death at the age of 40, but they've proved important to a great many readers and writers later—somebody did happen to need them.  In fact, many people did, and for many different reasons: his wild inventiveness, which was a response to the unformed literary landscape of his time, meant that he came, posthumously, to appeal to multiple constituencies—a factor as important to a writers' posterity as it is to a politician's electoral prospects.

One way to think about Poe's different constituencies is to associate them with the important writers who have drawn from one or another side of the Poe legacy.  Four or five such writers (and their four different views of Poe) come to mind:

Ray Bradbury's Poe.  Ray Bradbury's aunt gave him an illustrated edition of Poe's stories when he was a child and he never looked back.  "I am the ghost of Poe resurrected" he once told an interviewer (he also said he was the new Melville, but that he was Poe "above all").  Among the treasures most valued by Bradbury collectors are the letters he sent out with Edgar Allan Poe commemorative stamps, under which Bradbury invariably wrote "My Papa."  But which Poe is his father?  The story "Usher II," included in the American but not the British editions of The Martian Chronicles, explicitly draws on "The Fall of the House of Usher," but the gothic Poe is of secondary importance at best to Bradbury.  His Poe is the early pioneer of science fiction, the technology-obsessed writer of "The Balloon Hoax."  But Bradbury's Poe is also the adventure writer, the minute-by-minute chronicler of struggle and daring: a story like Bradbury's "The Long Rain" from The Illustrated Man may be set on Venus, but it is every bit as much the man-vs.-nature tale as Poe's "Into the Maelstrom," where inventive problem solving and stoic endurance are the primary virtues.  Bradbury's Poe is the grandfather of many pulp magazine writers of the twentieth century, the progenitor of Amazing Stories and Argosy.

H.P. Lovecraft's Poe.  Many people see Poe's influence on Lovecraft's career as confined to his early, pre-Cthulhu period, and there is something to this.  Certainly the Poe who dabbled in the gothic, the Poe of "The Fall of the House of Usher" was a direct influence on the early Lovecraft—and it's true to say that Lovecraft's development of an elaborate fictional mythos has no real precedent in Poe, owing more to Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegāna than any other source.  But it isn't the trappings of gothic horror that really matter in the Poe-Lovecraft connection.  Indeed, Poe himself wasn't the inventor of the long-established machinery of gothic horror, he was the refiner of that tradition.  His greatest refinement is the application of what he called, in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition," the literary work's "unity of effect"—the conscious co-ordination of all parts of the story to a single affective end, to produce a single emotion in the reader.  This kind of deliberate orchestration is what early gothic writers like Sheridan Le Fanu or Horace Walpole lack—Poe introduces calculated order into the wild garden of the gothic imagination, and the effect is (and is precisely intended to be) spine chilling.  The way a story like "The Pit and the Pendulum" strives, inch by inch, to creep you the fuck out is Poe's greatest legacy to Lovecraft—who applied the lesson throughout his career—and to the black-garbed, eyeliner wearing multitudes who followed in Lovecraft's baleful wake.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe.  Poe is not the inventor of the detective tale, which, like the word "detective" itself, has its origins in France. There's a strong case for Voltaire's Zadig as the ultimate progenitor of the genre, and examples appeared sparsely here and there throughout European literature in the decades that followed, notably in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Poe once worked for a man named William Evans Burton, who wrote "The Secret Cell," a story of police following procedures to solve crime—but it is what Poe does with the genre that is original.  While Burton's story is all about following rational procedures, Poe's three "tales of ratiocination" insist that one needs not only the tools of the scientist, but of the poet, to see into the heart of things.  Indeed, it is the character he invents, the fallen French aristocrat and bohemian outsider C. Auguste Dupin who represents his real innovation: the detective not only as rational man, but as aloof outsider, as a virtuoso of insight, as the master of inferring a world from a small tic, the way a great poker player reads his opponents by their giveaway 'tells.'  This is the character who inspired Sherlock Holmes, as Arthur Conan Doyle is quick to acknowledge: he even has Watson compare Holmes to Dupin (as well he might: the first Holmes story, "A Scandal in Bohemia" is a scandal indeed, in that much of it is a virtual plagiarism of "The Purloined Letter").  The Byronic detective is Poe's invention, and from Dupin to Holmes it's just a short drive to the vast and shadowy lands of noir.

Jorge Luis Borges' Poe.  Borges mentions Poe up in well over 100 different essays and scores of interviews, and posed for a photograph at Poe's grave.  So deep was his love of Poe that he carries not one, but two versions of Poe close to his heart.  The first is much like Arthur Conan Doyle's Poe, the Poe of Dupin and analytic detection.  Indeed, Borges wrote stories in response to Poe, stories best read in tandem with the Dupin stories.  But Borges' other Poe is my favorite Poe.  The Poe of the Dupin stories is the master of the explicable universe—Dupin sees through surface confusion and grasps the thread connecting and making sense of all things.  But there's another Poe who matters to Borges—the Poe of stories like "MS Found in a Bottle," the Poe devoted to mystery, to meanings always on the verge of coming clear.  I often think of "MS Found in a Bottle" as the antithesis of "Into the Maelstrom"—each story deals with an enormous whirlpool drawing the protagonist in, but where "Into the Maelstrom" deals in physics and rational calculations for survival, "MS Found in a Bottle" offers nothing of the kind.  Instead, we encounter mysteries that can't be solved, unless, perhaps, the moment of revelation comes when we exit the known world and allow ourselves to be taken over the border into something mysterious—perhaps death—at the sublime heart of the whirlpool.  This sense of a great revelation concealed but hovering on the verge of revelation is at the heart of many of Borges' best-known writings: we see it in "The Garden of Forking Paths," for example, and we watch scholars search for it in "The Library of Babel."  "The Lottery of Babylon" hints that there may, just may, be a secret order to the world, but we hover on the brink of knowing, just as Poe's protagonist does in "MS Found in a Bottle." This Poe is the modernist and postmodernist's Poe, a Poe not for the mass market pulp magazines but for the literary quarterlies and the seminar room.

To these four we might consider adding another, Charles Baudelaire's Poe.  Baudelaire's translations of Poe were crucial to establishing Poe's international reputation, but I find it difficult to think of Poe as an influence on Baudelaire so much as a spirit-companion, a courage-giver for a kindred spirit.  Poe's writing mattered to Baudelaire, to be sure, but as Baudelaire's biographer Alex De Jonge put it, "Perhaps more importantly, Baudelaire identified with the man.  Poe was the first modern writer: a desperate loser, haunted by his guignon [his bad luck or fated failure], a man who lived a life of misery and drink, and died in suspect and ignoble circumstances."  This Poe matters too, of course, but less as a writer than as a type, the poète maudit.

Many of the writers who drew from Poe exceeded him in one or another form of excellence.  But it is hard to think of any modern figure who equals him in inventiveness.  We might turn to the evolution of the literary market for explanations: the lack of defined genres, Roberto Bolaño once remarked, is a sign of literary underdevelopment: in advanced economies we find whole arrays of literary niches and sub-niches: hard-boiled detective, young adult fiction, swords and sorcery, historiographic metafiction, you name it.  Specialization is the norm—but this wasn't an option for Poe, who worked in a relative vacuum, and tried in a thousand ways to connect with a readership.

How, then, to be a classic?  Invent, try new things, take a lot of potshots, and—this is the hard part—happen to hit bulls-eyes with all of them.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

What I Like About You, David Yezzi: Reading "Crane"

What I like about you, David Yezzi, is that you wrote the poem "Crane," which I read when I was working my way through the small mountain of books sent to me in my capacity as a judge for the Poets Prize.  And I'm glad I got to introduce you at the prize ceremony in the Roerich Museum in New York. You didn't win the prize, but you came close: your Birds of the Air was, along with Mark Halliday's Thresherphobe, a runner-up.

"Crane" is, I think, an unusual book in the context of contemporary American poetry, its virtues (attention to meter and rhyme, and to extending a metaphor) being so old-school that they're refreshing.  The viewpoint, too, is a little outside that which I find in the ordinary range of my poetry reading.  Maybe the best way to describe that point of view, if we can scrape the barnacles of prejudice off the term, is to call it "middle class," or even "bourgeois," if that doesn't offend somehow.  Here's the poem:

Paper creased is
with a touch
made less by half,
reduced as much

again by a second
fold—so the wish
to press our designs
can diminish

what we hold.
But by your hand's
careful work,
I understand

how this unleaving
makes of what's before
something finer
and finally more.

So it's mostly a two-stress line, which is unusual except in some comic contexts, with an xAxA xBxB xCxC xDxD rhyme scheme—the sort of thing that gets you cheered in some circles and booed in others regardless of what else is happening in the poem.  And there are some other things: a nicely placed volta with the "But..." just past the poem's halftime buzzer, and an intensifying of sound echoes with "finer" and "finally" to mark the end.  All solid stuff.  But what I really like is the metaphor, and not just because I learned a little origami back in my student days, so I could perch on a barstool and casually twist a matchbook cover into a butterfly for the woman I was trying to charm (a remarkably unsuccessful strategy, it turns out).

It's all in the phrase "to press our designs," isn't it?  It works on the literal level, since the folding and pressing of paper realizes the origami design.  But it also has a calculating sense to it, and this helps turn the folding of the paper into smaller surfaces into a metaphor for what happens to private life when we are called away from it by our ambitions (in career, in work of all sorts, including the work of art).  This in itself isn't a bad observation, but it's the volta, the turn away from this point, that makes the poem interesting—because the reduction of life caused by the pursuit of our designs ultimately leads to an enriching of life, the creation of "something finer/and finally more" than what we had in the unsullied sheet of paper with which we started out.  All that work that takes us away from other things, that seems to narrow us or limit us—but only for a time, because the focused labor we expend in pressing our designs pays off, and lets us create something that turns out to have been more than worthwhile.  In the end, the poem is that rarest of things (and a very bourgeois thing, in the old Max Weber sense): an ode to deferred gratification.

(At this point the Voice of the Loyal Opposition can be heard, in incredulous tones, muttering "An ode to deferred gratification?!? An ODE to DEFERRED GRATIFICATION?!?").