Thursday, April 26, 2012

Vanity, Saith the Preacher, Vanity

The recent controversy regarding the announcement that the National Endowment for the Arts will not consider grant applications from writers listing books published by BlazeVOX, a small publishing concern in Buffalo, New York--because it requested an author to consider contributing to the publication cost of printing his book--raises a number of questions about concepts of publication in general.

My own experience in this area has led me to some eccentric, though I think, proper positions, with respect to various kinds of publication.

The notion of "vanity press" has had a fairly routine meaning in popular culture for the last three-quarters of a century. With the rise of the large, corporate publishing concerns in the 20th Century, public opinion has been steered away from privately run and sustained publishing ventures, as if any kind of printed matter that did not pass through the sieve of professional editorial approval, and achieve the presumed blessing and adoption by a for-profit company, did not deserve publication; and, further, that any book which was published through the private auspices either of an author, an author's benefactor, or some undefined printing entity, was a damning indictment of amateurish fakery and "vanity."

In order to address the larger question of the history of publishing, and how the support of publication has evolved over the last five centuries, one would have to describe the development of book publishing as a capital business. But my purpose here is merely to point out that what we now think of as literary history, does not parallel the development of publishing. Taste, as defined as the criterion and approval of official literary culture, bears only a tangential relationship to the progress of publication as a business. In other words, there is no very reliable relationship between the value and quality of literary artifacts, and the value and utility of successful publishing capital ventures.

Many of the most important works and authors of American literary history were NOT part of the official literary culture. In fact, many of the early publications of the some of our most famous poets and writers, appeared through vanity or coterie presses.

Walt Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, paid for by Whitman, who also did much of the typesetting for the book.

Emily Dickinson's work was substantially unpublished at her death, and it was only through the efforts of her surviving relatives that her work was prepared for publication, beginning in 1890, four years after her death. For another half century, her work was not professionally edited, appearing in "cleaned up" versions with regularized settings etc.

Mark Twain underwrote the publication of several of his own books, in part through a publishing company he partly owned.

Ezra Pound's first book, A Lume Spento, was "privately printed" in Venice in 1908. Several of his other early books were subsidized by literary patrons.

Gertrude Stein paid to have most of her early books published.

Virginia Woolf self-published several of her early books through her own publishing venture, The Hogarth Press.

James Merrill's first book, Jim's Book, was published without his knowledge or approval, by his father to celebrate his son's 16th birthday in 1942. Merrill's second book, Black Swan and Other Poems, was published by his lover Kimon Friar in Athens in 1946.

Louis Simpson self-published his first collection of poems (printed in France), The Arrivistes, in 1949.

A.R. Ammons paid the Dorrance Press to produce his first book of verse, Ommateum, with Doxology, in 1955.

I offer these random examples of so-called "vanity" publication to point out that talented, unrecognized writers have often been obliged to facilitate their own first appearances, because the official organs of publication are not open to them. The works of writers whom posterity regards as crucial and innovative rarely are recognized in their time--at least early in their careers--and often are rejected by publishers. The record of great books rejected repeatedly by publishers includes many household names. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, was rejected by a host of publishers before being accepted by Little, Brown.

Of all the books of presumed literary merit adjudged by agents, publishers and critics over the last hundred years, the vast majority are forgotten by posterity. Literary fashion waxes and wanes, but the most dependable gauge of literary fools-gold is an enthusiastic reception by a recognized publishing house. 99% of all books of fiction, poetry and criticism published by large for-profit publishing houses turn out to have little or no lasting value.

While it is true that a belief in the worth of one's own literary production is a poor basis for a measure of its literary quality, an official acceptance from an agent or a publisher's editorial staff is probably no more reliable a criterion.

For-profit publishers' measure of the value of a work is based of necessity on its potential for sale in the marketplace. The popularity of books does not depend to any significant degree upon their inherent literary value, and this is just as true of university presses and novelty publishers, as it is of the major New York, Boston and Philadelphia houses. The prestige of publishing houses is about equally measured, on the one hand, by the market performance success of its list, and the presumed "quality" of its individual titles. Publishers can't survive on unpopular books, because they won't pay the bills.

Most publishers traditionally regard poetry books, which seldom sell enough even to recoup their costs of production, as loss leaders. They may feather their nests with a handful of "recognized verse craftsmen" but they have no illusions about art for its own sake. This is no less true today, than it was in 1905, or 1925, or 1935, or 1945, or 1955, or 1965, or 1975, or 1985.

The fate of innovative poetry has fallen largely to the small press, or to coterie presses. Many of these concerns are subsidized by their owners or by the institutions which run them, or are supported by grants or gifts, or are tax write-offs for wealthy patrons, or are operated for the benefit of friends and colleagues or confederates.

The fact is that many of the books of poetry published each year in America and Great Britain are in principle subsidized in one way or another--and this would include books by "famous" authors like Derek Walcott, Robert Bly, or W.S. Merwin. Would Ron Silliman's book length poem The Alphabet ever have been accepted by a major New York publishing house? Could Larry Eigner's Collected Poems have been accepted by a non-institutional house? Are these titles in fact examples of augmented vanity publication--underwritten by the academic community, despite their lack of marketability?

The whole notion that an author whose work has no market value should be embarrassed by the prospect of "vanity" publication is really comic. The whole notion that Brett Ortler should be indignant with Geoffrey Gatza's proposal that he contribute something to the publication of his own poetry book is hilarious.

The plain fact is that anyone who cares enough about his/her work to want to have some control and influence over its physical realization and manifestation in the real world needs to explore and consider self-publication, before thinking of "straight" publication. Publication needn't be a mediation between an author, a publisher, and a probable public (reader). It might more profitably (in the aesthetic sense) benefit an author to conceive and design a literary work without the intercession or interference of a publisher.

What is worse: a publisher demanding that a novelist "revise" a work to make it more palatable or "salable" in the markeplace, or a publisher requesting that an author make up some portion of the expense associated with its promotion and production?

In our money-oriented culture, we tend to be dubious about an art which hasn't "earned" its way by passing through the gates of taste and approval. It's like wanting a credit default swap with a corrupt broker; you want the "security" of fake insurance, even when you know it has no real collateral. If you write to make money, or for the pathetic little fame that may come from having a big corporate publisher's marketing department front your effort, then you're probably not as serious about your work as you should be. Welcome to the remainder table.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Brainard's Library of America volume

I don't remember when I first encountered the work of Joe Brainard. It must have been in about 1969, during my first year at Iowa. Books by other people--notably Berrigan, Padgett and Company--had covers designed by him, and some of his early prose poems and selections from I Remember [1970-2001] were appearing in little magazines from New York. Then the first volume of I Remember came out from Angel Hair in 1970, with the baby portrait on the cover. I remember thinking at the time that Brainard seemed less like a writer than an artist who'd gotten tangled up with some raffish young counterculture poets. His art work seemed satirical and camp, unserious, but occasionally very funny in a naughty sort of way. Mischief seemed its primary provocation.

Eventually, Brainard's writing--as opposed to his art--became more widely known and appreciated, and I think this probably helped his reputation as an artist. Did I think he published his writing in order to promote himself as an artist? Probably not, since his connections to the writers of his generation was real and genuine. He wasn't a groupie, but an interesting friend. In his writing, he often seemed a little clownish and silly, but he was definitely on to something with I Remember. For someone like me who had grown up in the 1950's and 1960's, there were many uncannily familiar details. Autobiography is a difficult form to do interestingly, but Brainard had hit upon a method which allowed him to particularize his past, without having to be seized up with literary pretense and back-tracking. The detail, and the humor, and a refreshing lack of vanity made the simplicity and directness of the material feel like a revelation. Its originality looked easy to do, but like all truly original innovations, it was not easy. Joe had invented a new form, almost like an ingenious parlor-game. The American post-war middle-class family existence rendered up, detail by detail, from the inside out.

Joe's work turned ordinary life into an archeological expedition, but there was no condescension in the process. He loved things, and was a keen observer of the daily habit. As an artist, his work often gave you the sense of timely hip, of taking a vacation from affectation and pompousness. His difference--of being a modest, shy Gay man in the New York of the 1960's and 1970's--allowed him to assume the persona of the watcher, and the qualities he admired or assumed were the same ones you came to value in his authorial voice: acute observation, personal modesty and equanimity, witty mimicry and a light-hearted sense of humor, a lovable resolution to be better. He was open about his failings and weaknesses, and willing to share intimate tidbits about his personal life without elaborate manipulations. But finally it was a sense of his honesty and directness that stood out most. If the revelation of his sexuality was his deepest secret, his ability to tap into himself with complete frankness was the freedom he chose, and the key to his genius. Personal confession is always a risk.

When he got AIDS, it seemed to shut down some part of his creative spirit. He stopped producing art, and went into a kind of personal coma. The story is he didn't want to repeat his previous, Pop Art era, successes, but it's hard not to think that his physical decline led to a slackening of interest in producing artifacts.

Brainard was a minimalist. In his art, as in his writing, an intense interest in the small, the dainty, the efficient facilitated a technique that valued brevity and purity. There was also a serial quality, in which conceptual elaborations of framing led to crazy narratives. He was adept at making faux-comics, and collages from familiar objects, arrangements of the everyday. Again, it looked easy, but took tremendous insight and wit to bring off. Since he hadn't come out of the classical humanist academy, he was free to look at literature--his own writing--as an artistic object, not as the continuing thread of a long tradition. And that is one key to how he was able to delineate subject matter with such canny presence. He never just "told a story" or "drew a still life"--each execution was a carefully considered performance of aesthetic theatre.

And yet, if someone had suggested back in the day that a big omnibus volume of Joe Brainard's work would one day be published by the Library of America [The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, Edited by Ron Padgett, with an Introduction by Paul Auster, New York: Library of America, 2012], I would certainly not have believed such a thing possible.

I feel privileged to have published a group of Brainard's little prose poems ("Some Prose Poems" -- published in the LOA volume with "30 One-Liners" though originally published (in part) and not credited, despite the fact that the Editor, Padgett, had a poem published in that very same issue) in my L Magazine #2-3, Spring 1973, which can be read, courtesy of Craig Dworkin's Eclipse online site, here. Unlike the I Remember pieces, these aren't about nostalgia, but present-day observation.

Arriving on the scene fully 18 years after his death, this collection feels as fresh as the times in which the work was first appearing. It's lost none of its charm and delight. Though Brainard never questioned the underlying assumptions of syntax--of social currency or of grammar--he was able to project a vivid, enduring body of work out of the most reductive of means. He was able to make cartoons out of language.

I think of his work as one possible branch of minimalism--Saroyan, or Grenier, or the Concrete Poets--working in a conversational mode, making highly lit snapshots of quotidian life out of candid, unexpected events, objects, images, and feelings. Of all the other writers of his generation, I think Aram Saroyan comes the closest in terms of approach and areas of interest. Both writers meditated the underlying presumptions behind ordinary phenomena, listened with an intuitive care, and recreated these in a language devoid of descriptive distance. Like language looking at itself.

This may not be immediately apparent in Brainard's work, since its surface is always so cheerful and well-lit. Acute self-consciousness is one window on the mystery of cognition; syntactic exploration is another. Brainard may seem to be a kind of minor talent when contrasted with writers of much greater ambition and obvious complexity, but his accessibility is a minor miracle. Brainard understood his limitations, and he made ample use of his gifts. Once he'd exhausted the range of his insight, he moved away from both making art, and writing--to concentrate upon a delectation of experience, in what time he had left. Ordinarily we think of that abandonment as a failure of will or ambition, or a negative attitude towards life. But most writers and artists go well beyond the point at which their work generates real interest, repeating themselves. To have made one great innovation, and brought it off--as Brainard did with I Remember--is not a small thing. His work lives.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Occurrence at the Bridge - Bierce & Kees

There is an eerie similarity to the careers of two notable Bay Area writers--Ambrose Bierce [1842-], and Weldon Kees [1914-]. Both were accomplished craftsmen in their respective genres--Bierce the journalist, satirist and fabulist--Kees the poet, musician/composer, and painter--and each died under mysterious circumstances--Bierce [1913] apparently executed while in Mexico by hostile partisans--Kees [1955] an apparent suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge. Because their respective disappearances were never clarified, and remain conjectural to this day, they capture the imagination as unresolved touchstones in the history of the West. Other than the fact that both these men are identified as Bay Area figures--as each was born and grew up elsewhere, and didn't come West until after they were adults--there may seem little reason perhaps to link their fates, though there is an underlying cynicism and perhaps even of depressive fatalism in their respective world-views.

What is it that drives men of insight and curiosity to react to danger or disappointment by pushing further into the breach--beyond the limits of personal safety, or into personal despair? Part of our fascination is the uncertainty--that we may never know the ultimate meaning of their fates; they will spin in the outer orbit of our knowledge forever, never quite assigned a fixed position in the constellation of literary fact and reputation. It makes their work somehow more intriguing, in our age of the personalization of the Author--that we should not get to confirm the significance of what they left behind by pinning them down to a certain fate or a literal physical presence. They're like ghosts who don't come back to clarify the record. It's the sense of thwarted curiosity and the nosiness of our relentless demand for the fully fleshed out account, tying loose ends together and packaging history into neat bundles.

In a pre-modern context, readers and society were content to let authorship be an obscure condition,--and not knowing about the origin of a text, actually contributed to the elaboration and pleasure of the reading and the nimbus of implication and mystery that gathered about the printed (or spoken) word. We don't like those obscurities anymore--we want the facts, ma'am, and none of this smoke and mirrors.

Bierce's most famous work--aside from The Devil's Dictionary (or The Cynic's Workbook, 1906/1911)--is the short story "The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" [1891]. Bierce was a master of the short story, during a time when periodical fiction was just coming into its popularity. Among his contemporaries, Twain, Crane, London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conrad, Henry James all wrote popular short fiction, and their work imagined a frontier of possibility, but at the same time it meditated a gloomy anti-progressive vision.

"The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is little more than a metaphysical snapshot of about five pages length. Briefly, it's the story of a Confederate sympathizer who has been caught, convicted and sentenced to hang from a bridge. In the tense moments before the hanging, he imagines a possible escape. When he is dropped from the bridge, the rope miraculously breaks, and he swims to safety on the bank downstream. Wandering through an interminable forest, he finally arrives at his home where his family awaits him. But at this moment the reality of his death suddenly cuts short his meditation, and his mind seizes up in its death-throes. Everything he has seen happen before his consciousness has taken place in a rush in the few moments before his death.

The notion that people experience collapsed or expanded time under moments of great stress is by now a fairly common theme. Many people have had this experience. When I was driving the family car at age 18, a woman in another car plowed through a stop-sign and broadsided me on the driver's side. During the accident, I was miraculously aware of every taut detail of the interaction. I saw her car approach me, I read the surprise and panic and relinquishment to fate in her face, I saw the hood of her car move towards me and lunge into the driver's door, saw the door give way in a wedged crumple, and my vehicle slide sideways, heard the sickening crunch of metal on metal, and the squeal of the tires. When our vehicles came to a stop, I looked out the window at the woman, and spoke indignantly "what do you think you were doing, lady!?"

All this happened in perhaps a second and a half, yet in my mental time it seemed that everything had been retarded. The part of my brain that wasn't focused on the events unfolding in front of me, was racing wildly in all directions, figuring alternate versions of the event, and even considering escape options. The compression--or expansion--of time is a common experience that we have under stress. It allows us to function at maximum capacity, as adrenaline and other stimulators (endorphins) are rapidly released into the bloodstream, bringing about peak performance and heightened mental/nervous capacity. They are often referred to as "primitive" physiological responses, but their efficiency and value to individual life forms is phenomenal. Some people clearly have a greater capacity for response to emergency, while others have much less. This may constitute a form of what we call courage or bravery under fire; rather than a mark of superior character or daring, it may simply be a genetic variation among individuals. Coolness under fire is the ability to function effectively under conditions of stress. But decisive energetic function may be an entirely different capability, in which the mind is able to "ignore" distractions--sometimes drastic, even life-threatening injuries or threats--to carry out difficult tasks quickly and/or accurately.

But Bierce's metaphysical nihilism, implied in the pathetic delusion of a victim who fantasizes his liberation--like Houdini--from an overwhelming dilemma--is a powerful counter-weight to this otherwise optimistic view of life. The Confederacy we now can easily see was militarily doomed at the beginning of the Civil War. The indomitable and gallant will of the Confederate cause is metaphorized as pathetic and fatalistic in Bierce's parable. The Confederacy will go down to ultimate defeat, even as its adherents and loyal followers imagine an impossible, favorable outcome. The South's dream of victory turns out to have been a nightmare, and the sleeper is only "awakened" from his dream to the reality of his death. The imagination scurries about trying out alternatives, but all possible escapes are blocked.

In 1891, when the story first appeared, the events of the Civil War were still uppermost in the minds and memories of most Americans, especially those in the eastern half of the nation. Hundreds of thousands of veterans, many wounded for life, knew they had participated in one of the great cataclysmic events in history. Bierce's story is like a re-living of the terror and fear that soldiers on both sides experienced, before, during and long after battles or encounters. How such events are felt by individuals is the key to why this story is so powerful.

There's an eerie connection between Bierce's powerful parable about the intense foreboding or terror of imminent death, and the mystery of his own disappearance, in the imagination of readers, in the century since it occurred, almost exactly 100 years ago. But like the "surprise ending" (or gimmicky stories of O.Henry) it seems like a trick. Fate steps in to rearrange circumstance to suit an improbable outcome. Truth is often stranger than fiction, but fiction is an artful way of representing this truth. We have little trouble imagining the racing thoughts of a condemned man on the scaffold, but the true illusion is to experience it as a true lapse of awareness. Fiction allows us to get inside the head of the condemned to share the hope and despair and surprise we feel in the unfolding of events in real life. Our brains are specifically suited to experience these stories; our capacity to dream made-up events as analogues of our life in the real world is one of the hallmarks of our human intelligence, and we appear to crave and to require this outlet to balance the challenges we face in the waking state. It's how the brain heals itself, or "puts things right." Dreaming, too, may be problematic, in allowing us to create or amplify dangerous delusional feelings. Among the insane, dreaming may be an expression of abnormal tendencies, or may lead not to stability but to imbalance. Horror or suspense or Gothic romance--for its own sake--as a fertile ground for the exploration of the vicissitudes of the human soul.

The American poet, painter and composer Weldon Kees remains an enigmatic figure. Marvelously talented, he excelled in several artistic media. A precocious child in a well-to-do household, Kees grew up in Nebraska. His early career as a writer included stints of novel- and poetry-writing, Abstract Expressionist painting, play-writing, journalism--but he was most successful as a poet. Later, he delved into popular song-writing, psychology research (the semiotics of non-verbal communication), and radio work. Kees was that rare bird, a polymath genius, whose abilities span the boundaries of expression. During the 1930's, he had been seduced by the Left, and during the early 1950's the McCarthy Hearings caused his wife to have a serious nervous breakdown leading to institutionalization. The end of the marriage may well have begun the downward depressive spiral which led eventually to his presumed suicide. Kees had been taking barbiturates, and had had a series of failed relationships with women. His car was found along the edge of the road on the Marin County side leading to the Golden Gate Bridge on July 19, 1955. Kees was reported to have been talking about going to live in Mexico, inspired by Lowry's novel Under the Volcano [1947]. One might speculate about the eerie similarity this has to Bierce's presumed fate.

Mexico has often been thought of as a kind of artist's purgatory, a country steeped in a sort of mystical New World blend of ancient myth and Renaissance religious iconography--part escape-hatch and part no-man's land--the perfect exile for the clinically alienated artist-type.

There's been much public comment devoted to the issue of whether the Golden Gate Bridge has actually inspired many people to commit suicide by jumping off it, and what steps might be taken to prevent this either by restricting pedestrian and bike access, or by building barriers too difficult to circumvent. For anyone wishing to commit the act of self-obliteration, there are certainly other, equally accessible and convenient venues. But it may well be that there's a sense of glorious anti-heroism that attracts potential victims to the bridge, which has acquired a mythic grandeur as a monument to those who have chosen it as their launching-point to oblivion.

The West, in the popular imagination, has served both as an inspiration, a destination for those seeking ultimate opportunities, liberation, or escape. But having "arrived" at the western edge, there is also a sense of finality, and even of a dead-end. No matter how far we travel into the wilderness, or into the unknown outlands of our imagination, in the end it is always us we find. In Conrad's Heart of Darkness [1899], what Kurtz discovers are the deeper aspects of his own personality. At times, it seemed that Weldon Kees could turn his talents in any direction, and that he was only limited by his own cynical, sardonic turn of mind. The power to create good or great art, however, does not insure that one's personal world view be either providential or fatalistic. Bierce's view of mankind was skeptical and scornful, just as Kees's was. Both men came west seeking new opportunities and possibilities, and each found a degree of success and recognition. If we think of their careers and lives as being tragic, or confounding, it may be because we see in their vision a troubling message for us.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

To Retard the Future - A Backward Glance

The world tends to think of time in blocs--in spans or segments which denotate the universal movement of the spheres--the rotation of the earth, the orbit of the earth around the sun, and the passage of the seasons from the declination of the earth on its axis. Days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, millennia. There's nothing artificial about these divisions. I often think how silly metrical measurements are, since they derive from no physical object in our world, such as inches (the length of a single finger joint), the foot, the "hand," the yard. If we were going to describe how long the ideal yard is, we might have to fall back on metrical comparisons. How long is a yard, anyway? As long as a yard, you say, it's self-evident. Are you sure about that?

We think of centuries as convenient blocs of time, with which to designate cultural, political and artistic events or movements. 18th, 19th, 20th centuries--it has a very useful application when designating characteristic periods, by the familiar qualities we associate with them. On the other hand, if we say 6th century, or 11th, we're less apt to summon or conjure up any specific images--perhaps dreary cloaked figures trudging along muddy by-ways on pilgrimages. Our sense of the progress of civilization has a distinctly proximate spin, since as moderns we associate the advances of civilization in our minds with the values of improvement. We think we're better off than people were in the 19th century. After all, we can get our teeth fixed, we can breed better corn, or fly to London, or send a hundred e.mails in an afternoon. That's progress! or what passes for it.

At the end of each century, and the beginning of a new, we seem to be of two minds. We look anxiously or optimistically at the next century, anticipating further improvements and opportunities; or we may look backward wistfully at the lost world we're leaving. It's both an elegaic and an inspirational moment.

Fin-de-siecle is a French phrase meaning "the end of the century" but it's come to mean other things as well. To summarize in a very cursory manner, one might say the "fin-de-siecle" movement in French art symbolized a rejection of much of the progress--economic, industrial, philosophical--of the 19th century. It has come to be seen as both a nostalgic "twilight" of mournful decadence, and a call for revolutionary solutions to the perceived crisis of civilization in Western culture. Decadence--the word--has an interesting etymological lineage. Originally applied to the French Symbolists, who adopted it as their byword, Oscar Wilde defined it as "the subordination of the whole to the parts" as opposed to classicism, which is to say it objectified specific kinds of valued experience and feeling against the organizing principles of dogma and order (morality). Baudelaire, and Poe, for instance, are clearly decadent poets.

By the 1890's, the Aesthetic Movement had inspired Dandyism, the Yellow Book, Art for Art's Sake, and the various decadent decorative tendencies throughout the arts in Europe and America. Everyone has seen Aubrey Beardsley's work, has read at least some of Wilde or Beerbohm or late Henry James. The end of the 19th Century clearly was perceived at the time with some trepidation, as the closing of the book, perhaps, on a number of cultural values which were passing into permanent posterity. The Impressionists in music, chief among them Debussy, wished to prolong or to linger in this slow twilight of nostalgic regard, to prolong the beauty of a slower, more settled way of life they associated with the old order. But of course they well understood that this illusion of a past golden age was a deliberately fake vision, employed as an inspiration to a gently evocative stylistic means. The shimmering glimmering haze of vague evanescent regard could stand alone as a statement of a new version of the dated beauty, but it all seemed better when considered through a green cast of absinthe, or the wavy window glass of an Arts & Crafts cottage.

Claude Debussy's miraculous little waltz La Plus que Lent presents an interesting late decadent interpretation and commentary upon the fin-de-siƩcle, simultaneously as an ultimate realization of its formal style, and a definitive repudiation of it--an ironic duality quite in keeping with the spirit of the time. The slow waltz was a very popular form in the late 19th Century--played in public and in concert halls (think of the Viennese waltz tradition)--and it frequently was interpreted as a kind of clogging or decadent surfeit of cultural ripeness, of thickly over-sweetened and complacent artistic rot.

As a piece of musical ingenuity, La Plus que Lent may seem at once to be a kind of musical joke or gaff, as well as a breathtakingly poised vision of immobility. Though it can be played at different speeds to different effect, it's best when played extraordinarily slowly, as if nearly falling asleep in anticipation of the next beat. At that pace, it fairly exudes both a sense of frustration, and of delayed pleasure, as it hovers and swoons from one measure to the next. The subtle shifting of keys contributes to the sense of a sliding, slippery glide, as if uncommitted to any specific tonal statement. It is both tres amusant, and excrutiatingly futile in its progress. Debussy deliberately intended the piece to have these qualities, to be both a criticism of the genre to which it refers, and from which it derives, and an ultimate decadent final realization of its form. This deliberate ambiguity is a kind of doctrinaire Modernist methodology, very familiar to our eyes and ears and sensibilities, but somewhat novel in 1910, when the piece was published and debuted. Debussy wrote an orchestrated version of it for the music-hall, but its best incarnation is probably as violin with piano accompaniment, which makes it sound purely romantic and tenderly lyrical. Joaquin Nin-Culmell used this version when he included it in the score for the movie Henry & June [1990].

The piece is easy enough as a piano solo, and I've enjoyed playing it many times, albeit with some slackening attention, since it can almost put you to sleep. As an evocative vehicle to take you back to a time you may long to return to, it's the perfect shorthand.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

White Sand Fusion


by shifting the


slide under
themselves, an

camouflage of

as hot & cool
layers of

over the

shimmering pale



of Las Vegas.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The New Orleans Saints "Bounty" Agenda

This week, an audio recording of New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Greg Williams speaking with his defensive squad was released to the media. It took place in the visitors' locker-room on the day before the NFC Division playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers on January 13, 2012.
Greg Williams (alias The Jerk)

That game was won by the 49ers, 36-32, on the final play of regulation, with less than 11 seconds to play, on a pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis. In a game the 49ers needed to score to win, they did just that.

Now, three months later, we get a fly-on-the-wall report of just what the Saints management was thinking before the game.

The Saints had become a cocky team over the last several years. The team won the 2009 SuperBowl, capping a highly successful season. In 2010, they were eliminated in the play-offs. In 2011, despite three losses, the team seemed headed for another championship. Their talented quarterback, Drew Brees, was having a record season, throwing for 46 touchdowns and 5476 yards. Few imagined that the upstart 49ers, of all teams, might have the character to upset them.

The mood of the Saints players and coaches was triumphant, and bullish. They were known to play hard, and to play rough.

But let's put this all in context. Football is a rough game, and has always been so. In the early decades, there were few protections, and players could expect to suffer every kind of severe injury. Players in locker-rooms after games might resemble prize-fighters, their faces and hands bloodied, their bodies bruised from head to toes. As the decades wore on, equipment was improved, and rules were adopted to prevent the head-hunting and dangerous hits of the past. But the speed and strength and agility of the modern athlete guarantee that no matter how much padding and plastic is worn, no matter how many fouls and penalties are imposed for dirty play, participants are going to get hurt, often severely. Accidents and injuries in high school, college and professional football are inevitable.

In the old days, dirty play was tolerated, and even encouraged. A gladiator atmosphere was once common in the locker-rooms, and on the field of play. In the fast-moving melee of clogged line play, one player might deliberately hit a man's leg from the side, causing irreparable damage to the knee-joint. A player might deliberately "spear" another player with his helmet, a maneuver as dangerous sometimes to the player doing it, as the victim on the receiving end.

A good deal of attention has been paid lately to the growing awareness of brain syndrome suffered by football players in the years after they've retired. It's becoming increasingly clear that repeated blows to the head, over time, will usually lead to some kind of damage, often of a severe nature.

In the context of this growing awareness of the jeopardy in which professional football players place themselves, it seems astonishing that the old spirit of dirty play should still be promulgated among the coaching staffs of some professional teams.

Some weeks ago, the news broke that the Saints coaching staff had set up a system of "bounties and rewards" for causing injury to opposing players. The League acted swiftly to suspend the head coach, the Defensive Coordinator Greg Williams, and to penalize the team by taking away two of its high picks in the college draft. There were pathetic cries for mercy by Saints' team officials, and fans circled the wagons to defend their beloved heroes in the Big Easy.

Then Williams's audio hit the media. Suddenly, in living high fidelity, the ugly truth was out there for everyone to hear--recorded by a documentarian who'd been following one of the Saints staff during the season. I encourage you to listen to the full speech Williams gave to his men in the 15 minute recording, which is available on several versions on YouTube, as elsewhere.

It's filled with expletives, and a lot of gruff macho earnestness, as Williams exhorts his boys to take out key players on the 49ers offense.

On Frank Gore: "Kill Frank Gore's head."

On Alex Smith: "Every single one of you, before you get off the pile . . . hit the head."

On Crabtree: " We fuckin' take out that outside ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]."

On Vernon Davis: " We need . . . [to] fuckin' put [his] ankles over the pile."

"We don't fuckin' apologize with how we're goin' to play. You're here for a reason. NFL's a production business. Kill the head and the body'll die. We're goin' to knock that motherfucker on the sidelines. Who are ya'?--production. It's a production business. We goin' to 'tarantula strike'em til their head bleeds. So lay that motherfucker out. We're goin' to kill the fuckin' head. Affect the head. We break their will. We don't break their skill. We break their will, and they'll run and hide. Whatever it takes. Get ready for the next one. Respect comes from fear. When they fear us, they'll give us the ball. We don't apologize."

Following the above speech, Williams proceeded to hand out envelopes of cash, presumably for dirty plays accomplished in the previous week's game (against the Detroit Lions).

If the NFL League office has any credibility, the entire coaching staff for the Saints should be permanently banned from participation. The team should be suspended for an entire year (2012). Players on the team who want to sign with other teams, should be released from their contracts.

This should put paid to any talk of a Saints "dynasty." The Saints were a talented team, and their players deserved better.

Of course, all this will be quickly forgotten, and business as usual will resume after a couple of years.

But maybe, in this age of portable recording devices, behavior like this will be harder to conceal. People now carrying these little phones and computers will be like spies wearing "wires" too unobtrusive to notice. More powerful than carrying guns, they'll be one way to keep people in positions of authority on notice, whatever you say "in private" may end up being broadcast in public.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Impotence and Denial

How does the public acceptance or rejection of art intersect with the realm of the personal?

The public media mostly dwells on fame, notoriety, scandal, fashion trends, and celebration. Occasionally, indignation and censure will rear their ugly heads. Debate over the values of artistic/aesthetic artifacts or ideas is one of the hallmarks of Western culture, the freedom and privilege of expressing opinions about their inherent worth, or the function of art as a form of entertainment, moral influence, or instruction.

Artists and writers don't exist in a vacuum, though they may toil in relative obscurity all their lives--even very good ones, such as Emily Dickinson, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Darger. The canons of public taste exist largely to feed off of the excitement and fascination society has for the progress of aesthetic endeavor. In the forum of modern media, there is a continual struggle between competing points of view. The terms of that struggle change over time, but the underlying significance of the outcome does not. In our commoditized environment of capital exploitation and opportunistic promotion, aesthetic values and judgments are expressions of the forces of the marketplace. Fame and talent as criteria of value lead directly to realization of gain, both on a personal level, as well as in the realm of the marketable artifact.

It has often been stated or observed that artists and critics are natural enemies. Critics set up standards and measures of taste, which, applied to specific works or bodies of work, become barriers to public or private approbation. Artists strive to achieve success in their production, offering their work to its various publics. Critics, commonly regarded as guardians of the public taste, wield power over the public reception of art. Critics may praise, or critics may damn, though the "public" (that amorphous entity measurable by whatever scale one may choose) may disagree, embracing mediocrity or durable trash with unreserved enthusiasm or affection. Pop Art, aptly named, like any other category of taste, may pass swiftly from exclusion into greatness by the simple encomium of critical acceptance.

In the fast-paced world of modern public media, the reputations (and the lives) of artists and writers may pass through boom and bust cycles within a generation, or even less. Yesterday's heroes may be forgotten, and relative unknowns may be raised up out of obscurity into vindication and astonished discovery.

But how does the phenomenon of public media's affect on artistic taste affect the individual artist--his/her state of mind, well-being, ego structure, prospects for subsistence, both psychological and practical? How should individual artists respond to the vagaries of taste as they are expressed through the acceptance or non-acceptance of their work?

In the course of writing this blog, I've devoted a certain amount of space to critical reviews of individuals artists and writers. One of the reasons bloggers blog, is to express opinions about art. In my experience, though, the great majority of blogging about art is meant to promote and to praise and to provide real support to certain art and artists; in other words, it exists not as a forum for the serious discussion of the value(s) of artistic product, but simply to promote it.

Serious professional critics generally try to avoid becoming implicated in the exercise of public promotion of friends or colleagues. It's almost impossible, of course, not to associate oneself with what one likes, or, through familiarity or natural affinity, to feel a kinship with those who share one's taste. The perennial danger for any critic who wishes to be taken seriously is to be too closely associated with the interests of his/her subjects. Again, this is almost impossible to avoid in the real world. The appearance of favoritism or fellow-feeling may be worse than the fact of it. Artists are nothing if not competitive, contentious, jealous, selfish and greedy. The artistic ego thrives on praise, support and encouragement. Neglect and dismissal are the enemies of artistic endeavor--or at least that's how we usually think of it.

Since I began this blog in January 2009, I've had the occasion to do a few negative reviews of artists and writers. For the most part, my reviews and essays have been celebrations--and the rate of positive against negative posts has been at least 95%. In other words, negative criticism is something I indulge in rarely in a general sense. I'm rarely moved to condemn or persecute artists or writers, unless I feel there's ample reason or justification to do so.

Any critic who does nothing but praise isn't really performing as a critic. Criticism isn't just about promoting who or what you like, it's about defining what you think and believe--it's the application of a standard of sensibility, derived from the breadth and depth of one's experience, of reading and thinking about things. If occasionally one has a negative reaction to a work, it does not mean that one has a character flaw, or an unbalanced view of the world, or is simply being mean-spirited or cruel.

Artists and writers--the "natural enemies" of critics--may often express frustration over negative criticism. They may accuse critics of being imperious, or twisted, or old-fashioned, or naive, or too harsh. Rather than acknowledge that the criticism may have a grain of truth, they will vilify the person of the critic, rather than address the critical basis for disagreement. It's an old tactic--attack the critic, not the argument. Artists have to believe in themselves, since insecurity and uncertainty are stumbling blocks to creative work. For any artist or writer to be so susceptible to criticism that it determines their artistic well-being, is a serious risk.

Of course, for serious artists, as with serious critics, the public realm of taste is where the ultimate purpose and use of artistic production is decided. If you are going to "succeed" in the public, professional sense, you have little choice but to weather the storms of public exposure, and to take what the critics give.

In nearly every case where I've rendered a less than enthusiastic reaction to someone's work, I've received harsh and nasty feedback. In response to my recent post of the work of CA Conrad, I received sarcastic and rude private e.mails from the author. As I said in the review, "critical exception is treated as prejudice, and anything less than full entitlement is regarded as bigoted rejection." As a sexually ambiguous persona and public presence, Conrad's whole agenda is based upon an insistence on his sexual life-style, and the tortured childhood which contributed to his present dilemma. What I was acknowledging in my review, in part, was the reality of his projection; I was simply holding up a mirror to what he wanted his readership (his audience) to see and feel about him. At least in this sense, he had succeeded very well in what he seemed to want to convey.

Artists and critics tend to engage in a predictable dialogue which turns on suspicion, or hostility. Were I to have praised Conrad's work, I have no doubt that he would have regarded me with satisfaction. Artists and writers thrive on praise, and praise is what they demand--that, or silence. But it strikes me that some artists actually thrive on dispute, that the point of their even being artists or writers in the first instance, is to address their own sense of outrage or indignation at not being accepted, either in their work or in their personal lives. In Conrad's case, it occurred to me that poetry was perhaps the only role open to him, to balance the rejection and exclusion he had felt all his life as a Gay--or sexually confused--man. It seemed to me that the terms he offered to his readers depended to a crucial degree upon that sense of righteous indignation, and that his poetry was offered to the world as an avatar of his crusade to vindicate his own difference.

But for me, the critical function isn't about validating the personal, psychological condition of the artist or writer. The lives of many artists are fraught with difficulty, conflict, confusion, frustration, neglect, and rejection. But the function of the critic isn't to rehabilitate artists and writers, or to save them from their own shortcomings. Some of the best art has been produced under conditions of deprivation--poverty, persecution, illness and addiction, prejudice. But that by no means obliges anyone whose function it is to judge the relative merits of an artistic product to base a standard of taste on the plight of the creator. Even in the most extreme cases--i.e., say, in the case of Anne Frank, a young Dutch Jewish girl who was captured and died in the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1945, whose Diary, written when she was aged 12-14, was later published in 1947--the value and meaning of the author is a thing apart from the importance of the work.

Hundreds of thousands--indeed, millions--of Jews and other "undesirables" were imprisoned and tortured and murdered by the Nazis during the 1930's and 1940's throughout Europe. The civilized world mourns every one of them. But the literary value of Anne Frank's Diary trumps all the anonymous casualties by the fact of the truth and uniqueness of its record. The Diary of Anne Frank is judged on its merits, as the courageous and miraculous true story of a young girl with the presence of mind to record her plight, with intelligence and accuracy. The work is not fiction, but a true-life account, and the same literary standards apply to it, as to a novel of Dostoevsky, or to a canvas by Andy Warhol, or to a book of poems by CA Conrad.

Mr. Conrad, like nearly everyone who creates an artistic artifact, wants praise--he demands it. And not only that. He wants his work to be a proof and talisman of his sexual difference, of his specific personal identity. He seeks acceptance on a personal level, and in the personal content of his work. This is special pleading, and no critic worth his/her salt can be swayed by it. Either the work succeeds on its merits--whatever criteria we may apply to it--or it doesn't. One may argue with those criteria, or how they are applied--but to attempt to set aside the criticism as an irrelevant distraction is just rationalization.

In my view, even negative criticism is better than neglect. If people dislike your work, they may simply ignore it. But paying any artist or writer the compliment of addressing the work formally, seriously, respectfully, is all any artist or writer has a right to expect. The artist can dismiss criticism, or simply pretend that it never happened. The danger in presenting yourself, and your work, as your cry for acceptance (and love), to the world, is that you may be rejected for exactly who you are. If the reason you write, and publish, or display your work (or your self) is to submit to that public criteria, you had better be prepared to suffer the consequences. People may decide that you're no good. How you deal with rejection, or acceptance, is a partial measure of your stature and confidence as a person. If you giggle and squirm and flip the bird and throw crockery, that's a demonstration of your infantile rage and impotence, like the baby screaming in its crib for the nipple, or to have its diaper changed, or to be hugged and cuddled and comforted. Alas, making art isn't about sucking tit, or being cuddled--as anyone who has seriously essayed it knows.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A New Poem


(From here on, they all count . . .

Whatever you think to say now will
sound silly. It is not about
patience, or wanting a thing so badly
that you can never have it. That's
the easy answer. The difficult question
occurs when you least expect it,
that's the candidness of real life, someone
you trust betraying your smallest
secret. BW recounting the story of
driving across the desert north of
Bakersfield, chasing the big priceless
Picasso and Miro canvases tumbling
end over end across the sand in the wind.
Dizzy with laughter, thinking how
absurd life can be, when the biggest secret
you've kept is finally ripe for the telling.