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Friday, January 17, 2014

'An Opening of the Field' and You

'An Opening of the Field' and You

Jess, drawing/collage rejected as cover
for Duncan's 1960 Grove Press book.

Was thinking how it actually became 25 years that it took for Robert Duncan's collected works to come into print following his death in 1988.  How somehow that makes odd sense, in light of, say, Duncan's own 15 year self-elected publishing moratorium (though it isn't like he didn't publish.... there just wasn't a book, in the large meaning, between Bending the Bow, 1968, and the first Groundwork: Before the War, 1984... work, good amounts of it, did get published in that interim).  Somewhere in the apartment there's a program hand-out announcing a celebration for the coming publication of RD's "collected works" by the University of California Press, that dates from the early 1990s: quite a few people in the area where there to get excited about the imminence of it all, in the faculty lodge or whatever they call it on Strawberry Creek on the UC campus.  Robin Blaser and Robert Creeley read, and talked about Duncan.  Michael Palmer did the introductions.  Jess had designed the seven emblems for the seven volumes.  It was all just around the corner.  So that now, — and you think how does the last 25 years parallel in any way, say, the 25 between 1950 and 1975, which somehow seems far more vast an expanse than the 25 that just went by — so now we have these strange enormous tomes to look at, to create shelf-space for, to try to find our way in, after years of having the books.

Jess, "Sent on the VIIth Wave” (1979), paste-up.

The article in today's New York Times by Holland Cotter, art critic for the paper, seems nearly the first time I can remember running into commentary out of the New York art "world" (other than from outside-insiders like Ashbery or James Schuyler, in other words the poets; and Bill Berkson, even if he's New York at heart, is ours) that doesn't feel it has to disparage, with back-handed compliments and the like, the art that came out of the '50s and '60s in San Francisco.  The piece is striking maybe for its total failure to whip out any pot-shots.  Even Helen Adam's collage works, and her person, get some praise, and artists out of the scene (Harry Jacobus, for instance) who didn't go on to become known much at all outside their association with Jess, Duncan, and others whose names have gotten around, are spoken of with a degree of admiration and interest that gets past holding them up as laudable lost-world curiosities. 

Jack Spicer thought the big mistake the poet could make, and
judgment sweeps down swiftly, fatally, was to traffic with New York publishers.  Even imaginary ones, who can get more insidious.  The real sphere of meaning and significance, what mattered, was right in front of you.  Or could be, could you attract it.  "Yet it is not a simple process like a mirror or a radio."(*)  The mirror Jean Marais as Orpheus walks through, wearing magic rubber gloves?  — or the radio he gets his poems from, in Cocteau's great film Orphée (1950)?  It's too easy, it seems, to over-simplify Spicer, which is strange, given that any reading of his work admits the fiercely layered complexity of what's there.  But something, that comes out in force in the lectures in Vancouver in his last year — before he came back to town in time to be a dissident agent at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in July 1965, before he died in August at age 40 —
of his notion of the "poet as radio" (for one instance) can, and does, and will continue to get scooped up and paraphrased into creative writing exercises and formulae.  Let's all now "sit in rows, taking dictation" (that phrase is out of a Michael Palmer poem, isn't it?).  What was that nice work of John Cage, after Erik Satie's Socrate, titled again:  "Cheap Imitation"?  

Back to these tomes... I hadn't spent much time at all before the prospect of offering this class on the San Francisco Poets arose [cf. JAN 6 post] looking into the new Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 2008), that Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian edited, now in print and in hand better than five years already, — because, I suppose, I'd been invested in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer that Robin Blaser had brought together for Black Sparrow in 1975.  (See? there's that 25-year span, from Cocteau's Orpheus to the posthumous Collected Books, itself appearing ten years after Spicer left the planet — which again seems a far more extended 25 years than the 25 from Duncan's death to 2013.  Geometrically, they are equivalents.  I know, I know.... Doesn't this perception have to do with mortality?  As in one's own.) 

Federico del Sagrado Corazón
de Jesús García Lorca, circa 1899.

I'd gotten my bearings with that "brown" Black Sparrow paperback: the look of the words on the page, how the distinctive books within the book fall in their sequence, the "thick" sense to the paper; "favorites" that would leap out (friend Marvin Granlund in Duluth circa 1980 called it "The Spicer Ching," and it worked brilliantly for bibliomancy, down late at night in his basement) and other parts that stayed largely and repeatedly unread or opaque.  I'd bought the a
rgument that Spicer's true work began with his books, an arrival beyond all those scattered "One Night Stands"
preceding the ascendancy of Federico García Lorca and his taking the stage as posthumous interlocutor (gone, by that point in time, some 20 years, executed by the Spanish fascist bad guys in the summer, August 19, 1936 — Spicer himself would die on August 17, following Lorca by 29 years, and only about eight years following their book) in what became the first of Spicer's booksAfter Lorca, of 1957.

Cover drawing & lettering by Jess,
published by Joe Dunn, White

Rabbit Press, San Francisco, 1957.

It's hard to leave the books behind.  And then, cracking open the Gizzi-Killian edition of 2008, one finds parts of the picture that weren't there to find before this book got put together — pieces "buried" in that "trunk" or was it "box" of Spicer materia Donald Allen had passed on to Robin Blaser some time after Spicer's death, that had lived with Robin and David Farwell up north in their house in Vancouver (upstairs from Ellen Tallman — friend from the Berkeley days when she was Ellen King —, who'd helped to host Spicer on his 1965 visit where he'd read his poems and given his three talks on his poetry) before the "box" got transported back down the coast to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and opened up, and sorted through, cataloged and decided on, and (some of it) brought into print for us to stumble across at night in 2014. 

Take, e.g., the Letters to James Alexander, written 1958 and '59, that are now here to join Spicer's other epistolary passages — a favored mode, alongside the "admonition"; and this is intimate, up close and personal, so the reader is caught reading from over the shoulder of the intimacy, allowed in, maybe, though it's taboo too, you're awkward here, hypocrite reader, you're breaking a trust.

Dear James,

    Went down to Duncan and Jess's Friday to read them the letters.    
    Their house is built mainly of Oz books, a grate to burn wood, a second story for guests, paintings, poems, and miscellaneous objects of kindly magic. Cats. It is a place where I am proud (we are proud) to read the letters. It is a postoffice. I had not realized how little alone one is in a postoffice. Before I had merely posted the letters and wondered. 
    It is possible if you have the humility to create a household and the sense to tread on all pieces of bad magic as soon as they appear to create a postoffice. It is as mechanical as Christmas.
    Late at night (we drank a gallon of wine and talked about the worlds that had to be included into our poetry—Duncan wanted me to send Creeley the letters because Creeley, he said, needed the letters—and I went to bed upstairs with George MacDonald's Lilith). I had to piss and walked down the outside stairs and saw (or heard but I think I saw) the ocean and the moonless stars that filled the sky so full of light I understood size for the first time. They seemed, while I was pissing away the last of the wine and the conversation, a part of the postoffice too.
    This I promise—that if you come back to California I will show you where they send letters—all of them, the poems and the ocean. The invisible


Again, to step back a step, I'm struck by the fact that Holland Cotter somehow seems to get it.  What's a critic without his high horse?  Is it like it took one of those 25 year segments, however you want to cut it, for "New York" (so to speak) to start to have some notion about what once went on in San Francisco?  (Though, one has to say, the New York Times doesn't have much of an idea what to do with a book, pretty much any book, and no clue at all about poetry — seriously, they're like "the awards system" rolled up into a portable throw-away in that regard.)  At the end of his article Holland Cotter writes, viz Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff's fine art exhibition — "An Opening of the Field" is their title, after Robert Duncan, to be sure — that started in Sacramento and, in New York right now, will head back west to Pasadena later in 2014: " much of the art fits into no school, suits no market, lies outside the range of normal. It was an end in itself, a psychic collaboration, the communal property of lovers, spouses and friends."

Letters to James Alexander (letter 4), in The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, ed. Gizzi and Killian, Wesleyan University Press, 2008.

(*) A Textbook of Poetry, part 4, in The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether, Auerhahn Press, 1960.

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Poetics of Listening: The San Francisco Poets


CW 881-02 Poetics of Listening: The San Francisco Poets

Spring 2014, San Francisco State U., Creative Writing: Tuesdays, 7:00-9:45 pm, HUM 211 (though we'll be meeting in the Poetry Center, HUM 512)

Steve Dickison, steved at
Office hours: HUM 511, Tuesday 6-7pm and Thursday 2-3pm

steved at

Under the rubric “Poetics of Listening”(*) this Spring 2014 graduate seminar will focus around the spectrum of Bay Area poets working from the period following World War II.  We’ll attempt to listen closely to what is there in evidence—in the historic record of published works and archival audio and visual recordings—with awareness keyed to the poetics and theory contemporary with the poets.  Under this emphasis, the course is being offered for the first time at San Francisco State, and will give us the pretext and permission to dig into the wealth of work of the poets famously associated with this place, and to explore new territory in our own writing.  

We’ll also be listening acutely for what is not so apparent (what is, maybe, ‘present in its absence’) on the “San Francisco Scene.” So, we'll be locating our initial lines of inquiry in among the celebrated “Berkeley Renaissance” poets (we'll spend time, especially, with Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser).  It's my sense right now that we'll benefit most greatly by a fairly concentrated emphasis on this triangle of friends, "great companions" (as Blaser put it) who individually and as a group have exercised enormous continuing influence on later poetry.

[Alternately, and owing to time to a smaller degree, we could explore some of their “San Francisco Renaissance” compatriots (e.g., Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman, Michael McClure, John Wieners, Helen Adam, David Meltzer, George Stanley). These names needn't however define our limits.]

Specific subject areas of research and writing will be related to individual students’ directions. Students will be responsible for research, engagement in a seminar-styled setting, and original writing in response to their own and our collective work as a group.There are a lot of directions in which your work might go. I'm very interested, once we get some grounding, to step outside the "usual suspects" view of Bay Area literary history. Ideally we'll seek to expand inherited impressions beyond the given picture.


At this point, in addition to a course reader (which will be provided via PDFs, supplied by myself and by students), we will all be reading two assigned books: 

The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, ed. Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan, 1998). An edited transcription of Spicer's four remarkable talks given in the last year of his life (1965) while visiting Vancouver and then back home, at the Berkeley Poetry Conference. Spicer illuminates his own work and poetics, focusing around his concept of poetry written by dictation, the serial poem, his work in process, and the conversation as he saw it between poetry and politics. An essential document.

Robert Duncan in San Francisco, a memoir by Michael Rumaker (City Lights/Lost & Found, revised edition, 2013). Black Mountain College student, writer of fiction, who moved to San Francisco briefly in the late 1950s. Along with its focus on Duncan, this book's a unique picture, from the perspective of a young writer of imagination, of queer San Francisco in the postwar/cold war/McCarthyist/homophobe 1950s. (The intro and first chapter is posted at the link above.)

Steve Dickison directs the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at SF State, and teaches in the Department of Creative Writing, as well as in the Writing and Literature program at California College of Arts. Author of Disposed (Post-Apollo Press, 2007) and Wear You to the Ball (performed as a collaboration with new music composer Bill Dietz, 2009), with poetry published in Hambone, Mandorla, Aufgabe, Vanitas, Amerarcana, et al. Co-editor of Shuffle Boil: a magazine of poets and music (with David Meltzer, 2002-06),
Prison/Culture (City Lights Foundation, 2010), and Homage to Etel Adnan (Post-Apollo, 2012). Research and writings have centered on music and poetry, and historic Bay Area writing. Curator of the 2004-5 exhibition Poetry and its Arts: Bay Area Interactions 1954–2004, for the Poetry Center's 50th anniversary, at the California Historical Society; guest curator in 2006, for Recent Visitors: Poets and Publishing on the Bolinas Scene in the Seventies, at Book Club of California, San Francisco. 

(*) The "Poetics of Listening" seminar was originally introduced by late poet and SF State faculty member Stacy Doris, who died in January 2012. In many ways, this new manifestation of the course will be happening in her honor and under her influence. I am remembering Stacy's acute attention to sound—as heard, generated, reproduced, détourned—and to an always active practice of listening in all its modes, alongside her relentless inquiry and explorations into historic and radically new poetic forms. As Norma Cole said, "Poetry and the world of imagination meant everything, were everything for Stacy." We remember.

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