Monday, March 26, 2012


A few paragraphs of Lorna Dee Cervantes

I've been reading Made-Up Interviews with Imaginary Artists, a book of (mostly) interviews, by Alex Stein, with poets, writers, musicians, etc., who are (at least mostly) real: Lorna Dee Cervantes, Pat Ament, Cecilia Vicuña, Joanne Greenberg, and Peter Grandbois, published 2009 by Ugly Duckling Presse.

I'm finding it fascinating. Stein approaches the people he's interviewing with a gentle self-effacing humility, allowing his own ignorance to awaken to the heart of the person he's talking with. The interviews are wonderfully free of the glibness and unspoken agendas so prevalent in much news media "reporting" these days.

I found out about the book when poet friend Lorna Dee Cervantes showed me a copy when we connected and talked for a while at the AWP conference in Chicago this year.

Here are a few paragraphs from Alex Stein's interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes in Made-Up Interviews with Imaginary Artists. The short excerpt here doesn't begin to cover the amazing range of subjects Cervantes talks about in the interview; she also talks about her childhood and her first encounters with poetry, and her long in-depth research into the histories of the Jim Crow laws (both written and unwritten laws) in the United States in the 20th century -- and much else.

In the excerpt here, Cervantes has been talking about her experiences working for many years as a university professor, and the nature of life and work and thought in the academic world.


There is certainly a place for theory. I do believe, though, that one should not analyze one's own milieu. People should write critical work and do critical scholarship, but ideally in another language that is pretty near extinct. This is what I try to teach: that there must be a place for creative generation that is distinct from selection, distinct from revision, distinct from judgment. Camus said the whole purpose of art is to escape judgment. One should never analyze the generation of one's own work. Yet that is the chief project of these institutions of higher education. We live in an economy of goods and services. Forget Capitalism. Goods and services. Of which poetry supplies neither. That is why you can't look in the phone book and find it between plumbing and poultry. Call up somewhere and say, "I need a good poem." The institutions of higher education have gone into this corporate mode. Which has precipitated this crisis of legitimization. How many dissertations have got to be written about me before I can be considered legitimate? Is there a mathematical formula? Before people in authority respect me as an intellectual and think of me in that context? Before they validate me and listen to me and concur with me and change their minds on my account?

In my field, in the humanities, in this goods and services economy, we are working in this legitimization factory. And some of us are being put in the awkward position of trying to legitimize ourselves. These questions! These undermining questions. How are people going to see me? Where am I going to fit in? When I was selected for the Norton Anthology of Poetry, their staff was calling me over and over and saying, "We need a bio, we need a bio, we're not going to be able to include you if you don't send us a bio." They wrote these letters. But I didn't respond. And I was thinking, am I insane? Here is my opportunity. People would kill for this chance. But I still didn't do it. They ended up constructing one themselves.

What happens in some English departments is that instead of sticking to actual conditions and relations -- or, in other words, history -- it becomes about how smart you are. Who has the superior intellect? Who has the superior vision? Who is playing tennis with all the right people? I'm not talking ego. I'm saying look at the conditions of power. Look at the conditions and look at the relations. Soon everyone is fighting and in competition for the little crumbs of grants and little travel disbursements and they are spending all their time writing proposals. It becomes this thing where you have to assert yourself in the half-light, again, of what Kunitz called "the tyranny of the single idea." Identity politics. Multiculturalism. Political correctness. Who has the right interpretation? Is it modernity, or is it postmodernity? And postmodernism is not even a thing! It is not a movement, it is not an artistic style, it is not anything. It is not a noun. It is not a verb. It is a condition. A consciousness. And it is a gestalt consciousness. A gestalt is like one of those black and white drawings you find in a book of optical illusions. Sometimes you see a face and sometimes you see a vase. That's why I keep saying you have to dwell among actual conditions and relations.

Postmodernism is a gestalt consciousness. It comes from subjugated knowledges. This is what the United States was turning away from in the '60s. One of Foucault's big ideas is "the insurrection of subjugated knowledges." Back to the esoteric philosophies from the Far East. Back to Zen Buddhism. You can't say hippie is one thing. You can't say Chicana is one thing. You can't say Latina is one thing. Like, "How Chicana are you?" Right? Can you really answer that question? These are taxonomies. Hierarchies. And we are forced into this. "We're not going to be able to include you if you don't send us your bio." This is the mode of scholarship in the institutions of higher education right now.


In addition to the interview with Lorna Dee Cervantes, I've read also, so far, parts of the interviews with Cecilia Vicuña and Joanne Greenberg; the others look promising too. I recommend Made-Up Interviews with Imaginary Authors by Alex Stein.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Petition against

In the website of is a petition against's predatory business practices which potentially threaten the survival of small press publishers, independent book distributors, and independent book stores. * The online petition is here.

In the page at the above link is a statement by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, giving additional information and detail about the reasons for the petition, and examples of the economic and cultural damage Amazon's business practices are causing.

I've signed (electronically) the online petition. I encourage you to go there and sign it also.

Thanks also to poet Joseph Hutchison, in whose blog The Perpetual Bird I initially found Bryce Milligan's statement (reprinted) and a link to the online petition.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


AWP in Chicago 2012

I went to AWP in Chicago this past week. Here are some scattered moments from the past few days there.

By far the event I enjoyed the most was the keynote speech by Margaret Atwood on Thursday night. She talked, ostensibly, about the craft of writing, though she mostly told about her experience of learning to write by (mostly) teaching herself, by writing and reading as much as possible, at at time when that was the only path available to most people who wanted to write. Atwood's talk was infused with her dry, subtle, self-deprecating humor, often wickedly on the mark -- I found myself (as did many in the audience) breaking up laughing again and again as she spoke.

Atwood's talk took place in the Auditorium Theater, currently part of Roosevelt University in Chicago. The building is stunning to behold -- the interior of the theater is a vast space, with high arching ceiling, arched rows of lights, rustic country scenes painted on the side walls, and an arching panoramic painting above the stage depicting the progression of history through song. The seating sloped steeply from the back to the front (what's known these days as "stadium seating"). The auditorium was originally designed in the 1880's by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan; a theater staff member who gave some short history of the theater (before Atwood's talk) said the theater was "the building that made Louis Sullivan famous."

The theater was designed and built during the years just following the Haymarket riot of 1886 in Chicago, and the design of the theater was influenced by an insurgent movement for democracy that followed in the aftermath of the Haymarket events. The theater space was designed specifically to ensure that all seats in the room -- whether the cheapest or the most expensive -- have a clear line of sight to the stage, and a clear line of sound from the stage. (I sat on the ground floor about halfway up, far over to one side; the giant magnifying video screen above the stage was certainly a help, though I did in fact have a clear direct view of Atwood and the introductory speakers on the stage throughout the event.)


Other AWP events I particularly liked:

A Celebration of Tía Chucha Press, which commemorated 25 years of publishing by this great poetry publisher. Publisher Luis J. Rodríguez spoke for a few minutes about the press, then four poets who have been published by Tía Chucha read from their work: Diane Glancy, José Antonio Rodríguez, Luivette Resto, and Michael Warr. I especially liked Luivette Resto's poetry, and bought a book of hers at the AWP bookfair (see the list of books below).

American Poets Respond to Major Global Trauma. The panelists were poets Pamela Uschuk (who gave a short introduction and moderated), Francisco Alarcón (filling in for scheduled panelist Martín Espada, who was unable to attend), Richard Jackson, William Pitt Root, and Linda Hogan. Alarcón led the room in a ritual greeting and invocation of the four directions, growing out of Aztec traditions, and then he read a few of his poems. Jackson spoke about the war and genocide that occurred during the 1990's in Bosnia and other regions formerly part of Yugoslavia. William Pitt Root talked about the U.S. war against Afghanistan, and he read an excerpt from his poem "The Unbroken Diamond: Nightletter to the Mujahideen." (Pitt Root's poem can be found online in the website of the poetry magazine The Drunken Boat, here.)

I also attended a reading and discussion by poets Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine, and panels titled No Layoffs from This Condensery: Class and Labor in Poetry; The Need to Speak: Writing the Political Poem; and Things I Didn't Know I Loved: Staged Reading of a Play about Nazim Hikmet. **  I was particularly disappointed by the "Class and Labor" panel and the play about Hikmet. In the "Class and Labor" panel, it seemed to me, the panelists edged carefully around the ostensible subject, without actually touching it much. The play about Hikmet appeared to have been written, or at least performed, as a light comedy -- which struck me as an odd approach to a play about the life of a Communist poet who spent years in prison in Turkey for his political activities.

If you're not familiar with the poetry of Nazim Hikmet, a pretty good webpage about him is here. Selections of his work translated into English are available in print.


The AWP conference this year took place in Chicago at the Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue across from Grant Park, with overflow events at the Palmer House Hilton a few blocks away. The Hilton on Michigan Avenue (where the 2009 conference also took place) is a massive monument to glass chandeliers and gilded fixtures. Weather during the days of the conference ranged from 61 degrees and blue sky on Wednesday last week, to rain and gray overcast, to a touch of snow once or twice. My room was alternately chilly and drafty and hot and stuffy.

Apart from the official events, I had a chance to visit for a while with poet friend Lorna Dee Cervantes, who was at AWP in part to do a book signing of her most recent book of poems, Ciento: 100 100-Word Love Poems, published 2011 by Wings Press. (The page at the above link indicates that publication of the book has been delayed until 2011; the book is definitely available now, I have a copy myself, and Lorna was signing copies at the AWP bookfair.)

(Lorna Dee Cervantes has written a beautiful cover blurb for my next book, All Through the Night: New and Selected Poems, which is forthcoming from Red Dragonfly Press. ** Thanks, Lorna!)

I also talked a bit with Casey Hill at the New Pages table (first time we'd spoken face to face since sometime in the early 1980's at the Great Midwest Bookshow in Minneapolis); Bryce Milligan at Wings Press (mentioned above); Scott Douglass at the Main Street Rag table; John Crawford at West End Press; and I had a chance to talk briefly with poet Jules Nyquist, whom I'd met last year at the Albuquerque Cultural Conference. I also said a quick hello to poet friend Erika Wurth (in the page at the above link, scroll down till you come to Wurth's book), as we passed quickly in the hotel lobby on our way to events. I'm sure I'm forgetting one or two other people.

On Wednesday night the 29th I attended a party/reception hosted by the Poetry Foundation (the one associated with the nearly 100-year-old Poetry magazine published out of Chicago), where Lorna Dee Cervantes kindly introduced me to Richard Silberg, one of the editors of Poetry Flash in San Francisco. And last thing Saturday night the 3rd I attended a party/reception hosted by Split This Rock, the wonderful poetry activist organization based in Washington, D.C.


As I have previously at the AWP conferences I've attended, this year I was pretty sparing in the events I went to, just two or three a day. I spent a lot of time prowling the bookfair, partly looking for anything interesting that had just been published (or that had been around for a while but I hadn't known about it before). Usually toward evening my energies started to fade, and at some point I would retreat to my hotel room for the night, though this year I did go to a couple of evening events (Margaret Atwood's talk and the reading by Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine). I tended to get up early, which afforded a little quiet time in the mornings before the crowds started to show up. During most of the day the place was wall to wall people. Something like 10,000 people registered for the conference this year, according to one estimate I heard.

Here are the books and other reading matter I brought home from the AWP bookfair.

Their Backs to the Sea, poems and photographs by Margaret Randall, growing out of a trip Randall took to Rapa Nui (the island also known as Easter Island). Published 2009 by Wings Press.

My Nature is Hunger: New and Selected Poems 1989-2004 by Luis J. Rodríguez (Curbstone Press, 2005.) * Curbstone Press books are now distributed by Northwestern University Press. The N.U. Press webpage for the book is here.

Unfinished Portrait, poems by Luivette Resto (Tía Chucha Press, 2008). * Tía Chucha Press books are now distributed by Northwestern University Press. The N.U. Press webpage for the book is here.

Poet in Andalucía, poems by Nathalie Handal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

To See the Earth, poems by Philip Metres (Cleveland State University Press, 2008).

Elegies for New York Avenue, poems by Melanie Henderson (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2011).

300 Tang Poems, an anthology originally published in China in 1763 or 1764, translated by Geoffrey Waters, Michael Farman, and David Lunde (White Pine Press, 2011). (At the above link, the book is the first item listed in the page.) * I especially like this one -- it's one of the books I've spent the most time with since I found it the first day of the AWP conference. * This is a new translation of the book translated in the early 20th century by Burton Watson under the title The Jade Mountain, which was among a number of translations of classical Chinese poetry done during those years that exerted a large influence on the shaping of American poetry during those years and after.

Greatest Hits 1965-2000, poems by Albert Huffstickler (Pudding House Publications, 2001). This is one of the many titles in the "Greatest Hits" series published by Pudding House. According to the Pudding House website, the series has been taken over by Kattywompus Press. (I found the book at the Kattywompus Press table.) The Kattywompus Press page for the book is here; the page doesn't contain much information. The main page for Kattywompus Press is here. There's a "Contact Us" link in the page.

Split This Rock 2012 Chapbook (published as the Spring 2012 issue of Beloit Poetry Journal). In the Split This Rock blog, here, is a brief article announcing the collection, with a link to a Beloit Poetry Journal page to order a copy.

Apart from the above, I also got hold of several early (1970's) issues of American Poetry Review that APR was selling off for a dollar apiece;

And I found a bundle of several booklets -- reprints of literary texts (in whole, and selections) from past years, part of the City University of New York Poetics Document Initiative. The items I found are from the second series:
A webpage for the above series of booklets is here.

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