October 2010

Olivia Cronk


Love and Theft

“What have you done with all your words & gaudy language hats?”
-Lara Glenum

I do not believe that only poets read contemporary poetry, but I do believe that all curious and serious readers of contemporary poetry are reading to steal. We want to steal technique, mood, vocabulary, experience. All reading is stealing -- but poetry readers are going a little further, maybe, are thrill-seeking, pursuing a potentially synesthesic change of the brain.

The black fur coat I was grew forlorn
I couldn’t hide in the snow
Domestication’s velocity stunned
A docile patch of seeming clam
These yellow eyes can’t lie

-Brenda Iijima, from If Not Metamorphic

As a poet, an engaging book of poetry gives me a sensation comparable to learning a new physical task (ballroom dancing, flip-turning while swimming laps, driving stick shift); I blatantly and shamelessly read to get information about how to write. In fact, I often want things to be more exposed. I want not only to experience the gestalt of individual effects aligned to create a piece of art, but also to see how it is done, to feel that a creator is generous enough, intellectually savvy enough, to reveal her hand.

In my other reading role, as, simply, a “reader,” an engaging book of poetry provides me with a sort of transparency-copy-image to lay over my real life (a science book with peelable layers of biological information); my actual experience of reality is enhanced by the textual information. I feel the same way about film, music, and much visual art. In fact, I make very little distinction between forms, anyway.

I am more and more interested in what I will awkwardly term “atmosphere-as-art-project.” I am absolutely committed to ideas about reading as collaboration, as creative act. I am also interested in the implied dead-end of our current perception of art (not that I am very well informed about where Conceptual Art, which seems very exciting, is headed). This is not to say that Art isn’t doing quite well under the strains of the moment; I read, see, hear, eat, touch, and consider exciting pieces all the time. But I think it is fairly obvious that in Western cultures, and particularly in the U.S. -- where the deadening combo of baby-boomer hangover and corporate modeling has crippled mainstream thinking patterns -- we are at a weird time, a time weighted with the Internet, the shift in how we think about information, the endless ironic-slash-shit-eating recycle of old material, and the violent sense of doom experienced at varying levels: 2012ers may, in fact, find solace in the realities of global warming. And these things must inform how we write. And while I am too cowardly and ordinary to truly abandon what my husband calls “the mollusk” (the false structure created by our sense of culture and the inability to see up to or beyond human history), I do seek art that at least asks me to see the pieces of our reality exposed: a collage.

* * *

A while back, my friend sent me a link to CAConrad’s blog (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises. Conrad details exercises by which one can produce poetry. He suggests, for example, visiting the same piece of art for seven days:

Map your 7 days with extravagant enhancements: mint leaves to suck, chocolate liqueurs, cotton balls between your toes, firm-fitting satin underwear, things you can rock-out with (in secret) for the art you love. Take notes, there must be a concentration in note-taking in your pleasure-making. Never mind how horrifying your notes may become, horror and pleasure have an illogical mix when you touch yourself for art. Once you gather your 7 days of notes together you will see the poem waiting to be pulled out of a long and energizing dream.

Note the “extravagant enhancements.” In other posts, he suggests ways to read books (in bathtubs, with rituals, with certain foods); for one exercise, users must read to discover particularly pleasurable lines from Kafka translations before shredding the book and stuffing it into their underwear and heading out of the house to view films. And there’s stuff like this (from students in a workshop): “Find something in your fridge. Smell it. Listen. Find a sound. Get as close to the sound as possible. Imitate the sound as you smell the object. Take notes. (Notes should mimic the sound. Continue taking notes until the smell has faded completely.)”

This is what I am interested in: creating mood, experiencing art consumption and passing of time as memory/meaning-making. Conrad’s wonderful sense of collaboration firmed up for me something I experienced when reading Martha Ronk’s book Displeasures of the Table. Ronk uses foods as chapters and as constraints by which to explore prose poetry as a form and memory as poetry. The results are absolutely engaging, soothing, and exciting. The book creates sensations of foods, gives me memories of experiences I have never had. I read these kinds of things and I want to write like these people and I want to suck mint and ritualize the turning on of a hi-fi in my Nana’s moldy apartment and lecture to cool crowds of people some of the ways by which we might coax language into emulation of reality.

* * *

Above, I quoted from Brenda Ijima’s book, If Not Metamorphic. The title itself makes what, for me, is the soundest argument about how poetics should operate. If something does not transform or reveal transformation, then what exactly is it adding to the conversation? Italo Calvino noted the peddling of mediocrity as it applies to the reading of images; the same is true about the languages we use in poetry: by all means, let’s metamorphose together, let’s freak, let’s escape our mollusks, right?

Ijima’s book is for winter nights. Read it half-aware and half-not, while playing episodes of the Tom Baker Dr. Who. Consider silver suits and forests. Perhaps follow a reading with a viewing of David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Drink tea that cools to lukewarm because you’ve forgotten about it, as it is stashed on the edge of a table covered in handkerchiefs and mail and Aspercreme, and you are firmly wormed in a skuzzy blanket and dirty hair.

                            When you’re writing
                            within me?
                            Writing surrounds                                          the
                            accretion? Me?                            baby’s
                            breath?                                          The splendor of a faded
                            bouquet? Still
                            Propped on a stolid/solid table              A
                            A 24-hour manned booth of squalor?                            Of
                            And squalor?
                            As the train pulls away?

Ijima does lots of reveals in this book, leaves things rather bare while excessively specific in tone and vocabulary. She provides us with the outrageous possibility of “Still lives, like ideas              positioned              on              a / table.” And I think the book is just right for brittle winter and chapped lips.

Read Lara Glenum’s latest book, Maximum Gaga, while preparing for a dreaded social event or in a waiting room. “The animals my skin could not contain / are clanging through the hospital.” Gaga is a pseudo-closet drama, a toying with sound and suggestion as theater, a loving and baroque attack on our culture, and a sort of tricked out version of a concept album.

                                          Minky Momo
                            stretches her labia around her body
                            like a cocoon
                                                       & zips herself inside
                           & starts to holla

There are some directions provided right in the text: the poem, “Song of King Minus’s Daughters,” is “[To be sung ‘frilled out in pink meringue & hanging from the ceiling’].” There are also pieces that’d be best read aloud with a megaphone and perhaps on a bus. But, for your home or a waiting room, I’d suggest paring down other sensual intake while reading; the book creates for you the world you consume. If anything, keep a bag of those candy spearmint-leaves handy. Wash your hands a lot. Play some theremin music in the background. Or gaze at the waiting room’s furniture and sweep your hand along the seam of the seat; finger the tabloids and lick your lips.

* * *

Nicholas Alexander Hayes’s book, NIV: 39 & 27 rewrites (via erasure) sequentially arranged portions of text found in Gideon Bibles. “Each reader bares open fruit of particular copies.” The frame around the existence of Hayes’s text seems, to me, nicely suited, for larger experiences. I propose an unpleasant road trip with stops at awkward, bleachy, polyester bedspread motel rooms. Keep in mind the overt and covert transgressions of Hayes’s project. Become someone completely on the outside of contemporary experiences.

Blessed who trains my hands for fingers -- my fortress who subdues my people under me. Judges overthrown by the cliff are sweet bones scattered at the vain mouth. I hate with perfect hatred the wilderness clothed with flocks for joy.

As you slip into the cadence of the source and its erasures, consider the palimpsest of American life via interstates. Tune in talk radio. Read in your car, at the rest stops.

Hearted, a wooden idol is. Silver beaten and hands are purple, blue. The work of the daughter is no peace; there is no breath in futile work. They are ashamed, without knowledge, put to shame by his molded image.

Stop in a grocery store. Buy some antacids.

Hiss and gnash the Lord fulfilled. His fierce word, anger, sends fire into my bones, a net. Pour your heart like water before straight legs. The soles of feet are burnished bronze calves’ feet; no breath in futile work.

In general, I think we might be missing something unexpected in our new, more streamlined experiences of information. I miss hearing “the hand” in a friendly or romantic mix tape -- the dropping of a record needle, the failure to adjust volume, the missed cue. I like this same effect in hand-stitched garments and in many Robert Altman films. I wonder if our talking about poetry can more often involve detecting the hand, following the crooked stitch or the off-color thread. And I am always excited to browse a theoretical space: how will this book be juxtaposed with tastes, sounds, and textures to create the thing it actually is?