Monday, May 7, 2018
[This essay is a chapter in Martha King’s memoir OUTSIDE/INSIDE … JUST OUTSIDE THE ART WORLD’S INSIDE, forthcoming this October 2018 from BlazeVOX Books.]
Monster is not spelled the same in French as it is in English and it has a Frank meaning in French. Frank O’Hara, art critic, poet. O’Hara monster of prodigious talent, our urban dancer, man about our town, a wreck and a maker. A Fred Astaire. A Toulouse-Lautrec. Even casual acquaintances could feel his “our” about New York City. He lived in the glamorous swirl the gifted lonely can invent in a great city.
One story told says that when his loft was filled with enough people, he could leave the main area, close a door, and concentrate on writing. This could only work for someone who could shape his personal life into a work of art. All divisions. And none. Some painters have worked in a studio salon. Frank could write a poem in a subway car, and remember to hold the twenty-fifth line in his head until he reinvented it.
I never knew Frank as well as I wanted. Baz had known him since his first stays in New York. How could he not? Baz was everywhere then, and so was Frank. Frank knew everyone so Frank knew Baz.
Back when Baz first knew him Frank worked at the Museum of Modern Art as a sales clerk in the little bookstore right by the front entrance. The museum had an apprentice system then: curators-in-waiting had to put in time doing scut work, regardless of how fancy a school they’d attended. Harvard? Fine. You can sell postcards and catalogs. The museum store was a hole in the wall right by the front door and postcards and catalogs were about all they stocked, plus tickets for the movie theater which was down in the museum’s bowels where subway rumbles went right through the soundtrack. Frank used to save movie tickets for Baz, for which you had to pay extra, and even better, he’d smuggle him in to save him the front door admission fee. This was relatively easy to do because MOMA was attached at the back to the Whitney, and the Whitney charged no admission. To go back and forth between the two, you passed though a guarded turnstile paying nothing on the way to the Whitney, but showing your MOMA ticket stub to re- enter MOMA’s sanctuary. Frank kept extra ticket stubs in a drawer and all one had to do was take a walk around the block, enter the Whitney, and voila.
By the time I met Frank, we were living on 2nd Avenue and had two kids. Baz was no longer a teenager, and Frank was well beyond clerking in the store. He was a rising MOMA staff member who had curated exhibitions. He was a published poet with a coterie of followers. He was into everything going: painting, poetry, film, performance, theater, dance. He was buoyed by public attention and publicly driven mad by love rejections. He fell in love hard and often and everyone would hear tell about it. He bewailed his big nose and receding chin. He bewailed his appearance, which was certainly skinny, but clearly arresting, hawk-like and piercing. He bewailed but he preened wearing a jacket so it hung in an absolute fit from his shoulders. He was gaga for a blond California beauty, but not for dreamboats with empty heads. He might whine about his own life, but then he’d prod Baz to make intelligent calculations to protect his work and himself. I realized that meant he did so for himself too. What might seem like abandon, his willingness to give sway to his enthusiasms, was actually monitored. Frank wasn’t self-destructive; he was ambitious in the best way. With no sentiment whatsoever he arranged for people to meet simply in pursuit of what might happen. He liked to see things happen. When Frank talked he drove right to the center, where the energy was. He was funny about art-world hangers on too; they were as acceptable as seaweed to him, while Baz was often driven into rages over their uncommitted behavior.
In the early sixties, Frank visited Basil’s studio, at first occasionally and as Baz’s work picked up, more and more often. Now when Baz went up to MOMA, he would pay to get in and Frank would leave his curator’s office upstairs so the two of them could eat lunch together. Two or three times, while I was still working at Random House, I’d take off from my office just over on Madison and come along too. Frank’s favorite place for this was Larre’s, a cheap white-tablecloth French restaurant serving mostly organ meat entrees for just a few dollars. I happen to love kidneys, sweetbreads, brains—legacy of my mother’s cooking. I also liked Frank’s smarts, his agile talk, and I loved his interest in Baz.
But Baz was cautious. We’d get a late-night phone call from Frank, an invitation to come over to his place, to meet these people, to do that thing, and Baz would almost never go. Even before the presence of babies in our household meant I couldn’t respond to impromptu invitations, he’d decline on behalf of us both. He was wary he said of “entanglements.” I was ticked off by his reticence. Frank wasn’t putting moves on him, it wasn’t that at all. It was Baz, fearing exposure.
During Baz’s breakdown, just after our second daughter, Hetty, was born, we saw almost no one. But even then Baz didn’t back all the way away from Frank...he’d phone him. He’d initiate meetings. Then, in the pits of 1964, Max, our Second Avenue landlord, offered us another apartment. We were paying $84 a month for our 8th floor place, and we were two months behind in the rent. Our apartment windows cleared the rooftops of the surrounding six-floor walkups. Out back was a wide stretch of building tops punctuated by water towers, with open air all the way over to Broadway, a landscape that has been elegantly painted by Lois Dodd, who still lives two blocks over. Dramatic sunsets sent long angled shadows across the tarred tops and their water towers. You could watch clouds. The apartment Max offered was the exact duplicate of ours but on the 4th floor. There, every window looked onto brick wall airshafts, except the back ones, which had a view of another building’s windows six or seven feet away. We could have this one for $41 a month. Or, as I saw it, horrified, for lack of $43 bucks a month we would live with no sun.
Because of rent control the empty apartment in the dark could fetch no more than $41—it had been $38—but Max stood to pull in $100 more each year if he could flip us. If we refused, well, we should expect to pay him the $168 we owed on Monday. In cash. Or we’d see the marshal’s notice on our door on Tuesday.
Baz went over to Broadway to see Frank. Could someone float a loan? The next day, Frank called, met Baz downtown, and gave him cash. Not a loan. A gift.
Frank told Basil: “Larry Rivers wrote a check for me. He said you’re not supposed to know where this came from. Larry knows you’re a proud man. Of course I’m telling because I think you should know. But don’t ever let on.”
By 1966, Hetty was still too young to qualify for the free day care at Church of All Nations—and that made Mallory ineligible too as the program was intended to enable low-paid mothers to work. I’d found a small galaxy of oddballs who looked after little kids one way or another and I had gotten a job. I was working for Mrs. Burl Ives three days a week. Baz was picking up better temporary teaching assignments—a semester here, a six-week session there. The steadiest was a public service project for ghetto kids, a job he got on the recommendation of the sculptor Sylvia Stone (then married to Al Held). Before long, he was a part-time adjunct at Cooper Union and an Adult Ed art instructor for the Board of Education. Life was beginning to look up financially. Artistically too. In the old Anderson Theater Basil’s painting had began expanding. From that weird beginning when he sat on our couch and inked circle after circle on typewriter paper, he’d developed huge visceral shapes: soft abstracted body parts, vegetables, sea creatures. The paintings glowed with face-like forms that melded, dissipated, reshaped. They distorted dimensions and incorporated elements that normally would be separated. There came to be so much momentum in his evolving work that Frank would joke, “Another retrospective, King?”
By 1966 when Baz was excited about a new group of work, he’d call and Frank would be over. Baz was inventing a self that could exist in contradiction. That could marry romance and terror. The works were awkward and sometimes in-your-face aggressive. There was uneasy vigor below his beautiful painterly surfaces. In short, the paintings showed disturbance everywhere. Some gallery dealers Baz invited to look were unnerved, frankly uncomfortable. One woman who was not unnerved told Baz straight out she liked what she saw but since it wasn’t American and it wasn’t European she didn’t know how it should be placed. She stayed to look for a long time and Baz has many times regretted not going to see her again and making her a friend. Her comment gave him his first solid external definition: “mid-Atlantic.” Decades later the poet Nathaniel Tarn would use exactly the same terms, neither American nor European. He would say about himself and Baz, “we Atlanteans.”
For his part, Frank began telling Baz it was going to take him a long time to grow into this new work, and that a long time would also be needed to open a place for it in the art world. He shouldn’t look for a gallery exhibition at this stage. His work needed to be in a back room, somewhere insiders meet. It might be five years —more! —before time would be right for an open show. Time invested in developing an audience as much as time for Baz to develop. Could Baz handle that? After all, this work was an expedition. It needed support, quiet conduction, ripening. Could Baz give himself the necessary patience? Over at the studio, Frank had given him a thorough grilling about that.
Baz and I both grinned as he reported the conversation to me. It had already been hard! Would waiting, with Frank’s interested support, be hard? Frank was a glorious audience. Baz would come home from their encounters glowing.
Finally, one summer weekend we invited Frank for supper at our apartment. He and Joe LeSeur, no longer lovers but close friends, lounged together on our India print day bed. Joe said that I reminded him of Patsy Southgate, a loved and protected figure in their circle.
Then Frank said, “Baz, there are times when a person just needs money. You need to paint and not worry about Martha and the kids. When I get back from Fire Island, give me a call. We’ve got to do something to get you some money.”
I was clearing the dishes away and heard this from Baz after they’d gone. I’d been rankled by the Patsy remark. Was I being asked to follow yet another impossible model? Don’t take an interest in me in order to change me, I thought. But I probably didn’t look as suspicious as I felt. In truth I was also wondering if Frank could help me learn how to write about art. And I had been pleased because I’d made cassoulet—home-cooked white beans, rosemary, chicken, Polish sausage bits. We had a cheap slightly vinegary white wine which set off the sweetness of the beans and I could tell Joe and Frank hadn’t expected to be so well fed.
What Frank had said to Baz meant he saw what I saw. It meant this is not an illusion. Might actual money come from this promise? We held off saying too much. In truth, I had trouble imagining acceptance; I thought this was something that happened to other people. Baz, on the other hand, believed Frank could do exactly what he said. Turn up a patron, a grant, a much better teaching job. To interest people in seeing new work and talking about it was the normal road to becoming a well-known painter back in those days. Perhaps it still is.
We were back at 57 Second Avenue after one of our beach weekends in Connecticut with Gavin and Athena. Sated as usual. Toasted and sandy. Waiting in our oven-hot hallway, hanging onto beach gear, holding a sleeping child apiece, and listening to that rum-pot elevator slowly clanking its way down the big shaft way. I was, as usual, bracing myself for our apartment—dingy walls, peeling woodwork, crumbly floors. One never knew what even a brief absence would do—would there be a wave of cockroaches? The elevator doors opened on three people. Frank O’Hara’s friend Joe LeSeur, with our downstairs neighbors Frank Lima and tall beautiful Sheila Baikul—she was at the time a sought-after Vogue model. All three of them in tears.
“Frank is dying,” Sheila said.
“Frank was run over on Fire Island.” Was Joe saying that?
They were running somewhere.
What do you mean? There aren’t any cars on Fire Island.
Just little red wagons. Run over? Please, I have a job to get to Monday morning; we have kids to put to bed. This has to be all wrong.
Later that night Frank and Sheila came up to our apartment to tell us it was no mistake. O’Hara was now in a hospital in the city. It was a beach buggy that hit him. A beach buggy is a jeep, a lethally heavy vehicle, not a little red wagon. On Saturday the first hospital, the one in Patchogue, didn’t believe it either. The medical staff there were habitually cynical about homosexual fights on Fire Island and confident in their knowledge of queer life: fags lie and dramatize. So Frank hadn’t been immediately treated for his deep internal injuries. Now he was in intensive care and complaining to Larry Rivers that the multiple tubes and drains in his body were “horribly unaesthetic.”
The next day he was dead.
Frank was gone, dissolving as he vanished, dissolving the connections he had spun all through the downtown world, poetry, art, dance, theater—leaving many people beached, unmoored, disbelieving. Leaving Baz. Leaving me. Dissolving all the futures he didn’t live to do.
Martha King was born Martha Winston Davis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College for three months as a teenager, and married the painter Basil King in 1958. They have two daughters and four grandchildren. Before retiring in 2011, Martha worked day jobs as an editor and science writer. She also edited 2+2 chapbooks with Susan Sherman in the late 1970s and published 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzle, a free zine, 1983-1992. Currently she co-curates a long- running prose reading series with Elinor Nauen at the SideWalk Café on the Lower East Side. See basilking.net.
Her books are:
Women and Children First, 2+2 Press, 1975
Weather, New Rivers Press, 1978
Islamic Miniature, Lee/Lucas Press 1979
Monday Through Friday, Zelot Press, 1982
Seventeen Walking Sticks, (with art by Basil King) Stop Press, 1997
Imperfect Fit: Selected Poems, Marsh Hawk, 2004
Little Tales of Family and War, Spuyten Duyvil, 1999
Separate Parts: Six Memory Pieces, Avec, 2002
Seven & More, (with art by Basil King) Spuyten Duyvil, 2006
North & South, Spuyten Duyvil, 2006
Sunday, May 6, 2018
ROB MCLENNAN Reviews
Is That the Sound of a Piano Comingfrom Several Houses Down? by Noah Eli Gordon
(Solid Objects, New York, 2018)
Someone tied to a parking meter the dog that barks every time a woman approaches to insert a quarter. This makes her the subject. It is a metaphor for the aristocracy of money. One performer plays both leash and dog. Another stands in for the meter. I play the woman. Someone appears offstage. It is often difficult to tell a king from a queen. The problem is no one plays the difficulty.
Boulder, Colorado poet Noah Eli Gordon’s latest poetry title is Is That the Sound of a Piano Coming from Several Houses Down? (New York NY: Solid Objects, 2018), a collection I’ve been looking forward to seeing ever since I first saw selections from it in Ugly Ducking Presse’s 6x6 back in 2012. Similar in structure to his collection The Source (New York NY: Futurepoem Books, 2011), the poems in this new work all share the same title, “The Problem,” with the bulk of the collection made up of prose poems, with none longer than a single page. Unlike The Source, made up of poems titled “The Source,” his collection of poems each titled “The Problem” isn’t titled The Problem, or some otherwise clever wordplay, but (obviously) Is That the Sound of a Piano Coming from Several Houses Down?. With the alternate title, it is as though the collection isn’t overcome by the repetition, and the potential of repeating a structure that had worked in the past. It would be curious to know if his initial thoughts on the final publication of The Source was indeed an influence, as this collection was composed during the period he was most likely seeing The Source through to publication, as he writes as part of the acknowledgments: “These problems were encountered mostly in Brooklyn, NY, in the summer of 2010, lingering on in Denver, CO, until about February of 2011.”
In order to keep things straight, she tapes a timeline marking the important events of her novel to the bedroom wall. I think this could be the first sentence of my novel. The problem is it’s already written.
The poems are incredibly sharp, and composed as odd narratives, descriptive passages, alternate perspectives and even hesitant wisdoms, a number of which take their time to sink in, as any new perspective or wisdom might. The book is dedicated to American poet Sawako Nakayasu, “in return for the gift of her translation / of Ayane Kawata’s poem ‘Running Posture’ / in Castles in the Air,” a poem and book I’d been previously unaware of (although I’m an admirer of the work I’ve seen of hers). Discovering the poem online on the publisher’s page for the book (a book I now have to order, clearly), it reads:
I am being chased and so I run, though the problem lies not in the fact that someone is chasing me, but in the posture with which I run away.
The problem, Gordon might suggest, is that I haven’t read exactly all the same works he has, nor he me, altering the ways in which I might approach such a book as this. While I might not be aware of that particular translation, my initial take on the collection compared Gordon’s use of the prose poem, composed as a blend of gestural koan and short story, to Sarah Manguso’s short story collection, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s, 2007). Manguso’s is a book that heavily influenced my own debut short story collection, The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), both of which were composed out of a sequence of untitled and self-contained short, single-paragraph prose fictions that meet somewhere in the blend of essay, short story and musing (and a book, it would seem, I began working on during the same period Gordon composed Is That the Sound of a Piano Coming from Several Houses Down?). One might argue that all three collections, Gordon’s included, work from the founding premise that something is wrong (or at least amiss, or slightly off), and the awareness that there is always, constantly, something else happening in the poem, just out of view, out of reach and out of focus. What is curious about Is That the Sound of a Piano Coming from Several Houses Down? is in seeing the accumulation of poems structured around a similar premise, one that allows “the problem” to sometimes be the entire point, and other times, the distraction, and occasionally an idea that steps carefully out of the way of the poem, even while remaining the engine that drives both the individual pieces and the book as a whole.
He sends a hurried email to a distant relative detailing the particulars of his upcoming arrival—dates, places, a somewhat transparent formal tone, and immediately regrets not having done so in a more intimate fashion, with a postcard perhaps. Perhaps with this one, the one where the sun is either rising or setting, flanked by high clouds and flecked with pink, like the meat of a flower whose name he’s failed to learn. It’s as though he’s realized there was music playing because there isn’t anymore—the sudden silence of the world as much an indescribable flower as it is the description of one staring directly at it. The sun, rising and setting, setting and rising. But not, as we know, in that exact order.
There is something about the shift of the title that displays the strength of the collection, and what might have allowed this book to be as strong as it is, providing an opportunity for the structure not to overwhelm the work, and the author, perhaps, to himself step out of the way, and allow the work to shine through. I’ve been an admirer of Noah Eli Gordon and his work for some time, but this might easily be his strongest work to date, in part due to the subtlety of the poems, made so much more clear through the deceptive straightfowardness of the premise: Is That the Sound of a Piano Coming from Several Houses Down? is not, in fact, a book about problems or telling you what the problem might be. It is a book that focuses on all the small details that lead up to that point of declaring something, true or otherwise, to be the actual problem. Does that make sense?
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2017. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016), and the forthcoming How the alphabet was made (Spuyten Duyvil, 2018) and Household items (Salmon Poetry, 2018). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, a former contributor to the Ploughshares blog, editor of my (small press) writing day, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com
Saturday, May 5, 2018
PATRICK JAMES DUNAGAN Reviews
Compendium: a collection of thoughts on prosody by Donald Justice, edited by David Koehn and Alan Soldofsky
(Omnidawn, Oakland, 2017)
In the history of MFA programs in creative writing, poet Donald Justice looms large. Throughout the 1960s, 70s & 80s, from Iowa out, he was a prominent figure on the major university circuit scene teaching and mentoring many a poet-professor-to-be. Compendium: a collection of thoughts on prosody collects together the “yellowed, coffee-cup stained, and wrinkled” papers of the “prosody course syllabus” one-time Justice student, editor David Koehn, has carried “around with me since I was but a young adjunct professor.” This first-hand document for the teaching and the study of the writing of poetry is intended for working-apprentice poets. The focus is upon the sound mechanics underpinning the activity, in Robert Creeley’s words, “the sounds of words, with the play of that fact.” Or in other words, how hard poetry works to make the conjoining of sound and sense appear easy.
As with many a workbook for bettering one's understanding and appreciation for the attendant complexities of poetic practice, and similar to many an MFA syllabus focused upon such craft, the bulk of material included here is composed of a broad spectrum of example selections of poems drawn from out the Western poetic tradition. It is thus far more of a study guide than the subtitle “a collection of thoughts” might indicate. Readers should not be misled into expecting an abundance of exegetical, or other, commentary from Justice himself. There is but a brief opening statement wherein he lays out his own take on “as simple and consistent a set of terms” for the four basic “metrical types” used in English prosody: Syllabics, Accentuals, Accentual-Syllabics, and Free Verse. Following this there's a “sampling of some classical statements regarding meter” consisting of short extracts drawn from Coleridge, Wordsworth, and I.A. Richards.
The vast remainder of the book consists of selected specimen-texts in groupings covering each of Justice’s four “metrical types” along with: Dipodic Verse, Sound and Sense, and Song. In addition, there are closing sections on Some Rhetorical Figures (these are classical terms for devices of rhetoric, such as “Epistrophe: same word ending a sequence of clauses or sentences.” Including examples, e.g.: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. – First Corinthians”) and Quantitative Verse in English with “Sir Philip Sidney’s rules (abridged)” followed by a few pages of metrical examples. The book's final sections, Practice Exercises and Review, invite readers to test their knowledge by marking down the scansion found in specific lines and grouping verses by metrical type. Yet with no answers or cheat sheet given, it's hard to see these sections proving useful to solitary readers attempting work things out on their own.
Koehn also includes a partial transcript from Justice's 1967 talk at the University of Cincinnati intriguingly entitled “silence and the open field: John Cage and Charles Olson.” However the selection Koehn presents focuses nearly entirely upon Justice's remarks concerning Cage and silence, leaving readers to only wonder after Olson and the open field. Hopefully those curious will seek out and listen to the recording of the talk available for download from the University of Cincinnati Libraries: . There’s plenty to ponder in Justice’s comment that “Olson is probably as close to the Cagean aesthetic as any poet of reputation now writing” and that he was stating it in 1967 is commendable. Justice certainly engages with Olson's work and ideas a fair amount; going quite further, and with a genuine openness of mind, than Koehn's selection would indicate.
In the full talk, Justice at the very least lays the necessary groundwork for relating Cage and Olson, noting how the two were present at Black Mountain College. Olson in fact took part by way of reading his own poems in Cage's “Theater Piece No. 1” (Black Mountain College, August 1952) commonly acknowledged as the first “happening.” It’s unfortunate that, judging from Koehn’s remarks in his introduction regarding the talk, he doesn't appear either amendable to or close to understanding “open field” poetics: “The ‘open field’ of the space between the ‘unintended’ and the ‘intended’ represents the opportunity of the contemporary to inform practice with the very nature of the everyday: its ordinariness and its randomness.” This not only misconstrues, in a rather belittling manner no less, what’s at stake in open field poetics it also misses Justice’s own repeated emphasis in his talk upon “a poetry that isn’t yet written” and his open desire to explore the promising potential he locates somewhere between and ahead of the work of Cage and Olson.
There are an unfortunate typos strewn throughout the Koehn’s text. Of course he was working off what for all purposes would qualify as a working manuscript, yet that would be all the more reason to thoroughly comb through the pages for errors. A partial list: a metrical example in German from Heinrich Heine is left floating unattributed over the next following selection from out Beowulf (closing punctuation on two of these Heine lines is also flipped, an exclamation point appearing for what should be a question mark and vice versa.); Basil Bunting is indexed as “Bunting, Bail”; and, while humorously appropriate as it may be, nonetheless mistakenly “Coors” is given for the last name of poet Gregory Corso in a passage quotation from Allen Ginsberg that is rife with further typos. The greatest worry over such errors of course is their appearance in example texts where the unacquainted student reader might thus be misled.
Compendium is a valuable resource for an overview of the ins and outs of prosodic practice offering a snapshot of what one leading MFA instructor found most useful to his own teaching. In that regard, it’s an useful addition to the toolkit of resources for instructors, however, it should not be taken as enough in and of itself to fulfill the curriculum needs of an entire course. There’s no doubt that Justice’s own words in class rounded out what is otherwise a bare bones structure. That is exactly what’s not to be found here: the no doubt casual asides and quick feedback Justice offered in the classroom and lecture hall. Certainly if there are recordings of further lectures by Justice, such as the Cage/Olson one only but excerpted here, a set of transcriptions of them in their entirety would make a splendid follow-up volume to this one.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil).