The dark labyrinth of conceptual poetries

I just finished writing the following for one of my prose poetry classes and without modifying it much, I’m including it on this blog.

The dark labyrinth of conceptual poetries . . .

            Learn the language of mathematics . . . or wander
            in vain through a dark labyrinth. (Galileo, Opere V1232)

A week or so ago I attended about half of a poetry conference at the Poetry Center in Tucson curated by the critic Marjorie Perloff. Following various links from the Poetry Center’s website for the conference, one is bound to locate an anthology of conceptual writing by Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (UBU). Throughout the conference participants seemed to be responding to the definition of conceptual poetry on this UBU site, and to differentiate it from other poetry movements or approaches in the past. The term conceptual has been used in the past for art and writing, but not as the name of a poetry movement. That and the addition of multi media possibilities seems the only major difference between the 70-80’s work and now. Wikipedia, my somewhat democratic mostly reliable sometimes not website offers a simple description of conceptual art.

art in which the concept(s) or idea(s) involved in the work take precedence over traditional aesthetic and material concerns. . . . ‘ The idea becomes a machine that makes the art’ (Sol LeWitt). . . . The inception of the term in the 1960s referred to a strict and focused practice of idea-based art that often defied traditional visual criteria associated with the visual arts in its presentation as text.

In the early nineties I edited a journal with a conceptual artist, Miranda Maher (and also with contributing editors Sally Young, Lewis Warsh, Chris Tysh, Don David, Michael Pelias and Tyrone Williams). In Long News: In the Short Century, we published conceptual-based art and writing mostly from the New York and Language schools. See:

I was surprised when I read the introduction to the UBU anthology to find that their description was very close to what Miranda Maher and I had written as the philosophy for our journal seventeen years earlier—non-expressive, not led by emotion, a direct presentation of language, using procedures like appropriation, collage, erasure, oulipian constraints, making poetry new, etc. Writing that is off-center, non-mainstream mostly non-referential, idea-generated writing. (With time passing, I’ve revised my interests to include autobiographical and emotive language and description as it is or reconfigured and re-examined with various conceptual frames and experiments.)

I just emailed Miranda and asked her what she thought of the wiki definition. (To see Miranda’s work, go to

Hi Barb,

I would say that is a very good working definition. Love Wikipedia. Sol LeWitt was the big daddy of conceptual art. . . . Also, it might be helpful to be aware of some subtle (and not-so-subtle) visual art world distinctions.. ‘Conceptually-based’ is separate from ‘conceptual’. My work is usually described as conceptually-based, rather than conceptual. I think this is because I am interested in what is conveyed by aesthetics and materials and they also play a role in my work. A lot of conceptual visual art is anti-aesthetic… meaning they add nothing that is not about the concept — some even strip down existing objects/systems to their non-material/aesthetic idea-core.

Another undertone is that “pure” conceptual work tends to valorize the (ego) intellect. Especially the early (60s) work sometimes implied that it is possible to set up a premise and follow it through unsullied by human emotion, subjective foibles etc. Also, the early artists were predominantly white and male. Probably because their working idea of “intellect” was the white/male in power version. For me, the “pure conceptual” still seems to have that going on (either actual white males or women who are exceedingly male-identified). This is rarely spoken of however. Seems to be non-PC. Another under-cover association is that conceptual is the highest art form and all other approaches would be conceptual if they could (but aren’t good enough). Many practitioners are heavily invested in that hierarchy. I’d be interested to know if this sort of B.S. has translated into the poetry community…

It’s not that I dislike conceptual art — the rigor of well-executed conceptual art is gorgeous. And when done right it has an austere, intellectual beauty similar to the beauty of pure mathmatics (not that I can understand pure mathmatics). The B.S. comes into it in attitude and personal interaction. . . Perhaps there is a fundamental, internal contradiction . . . . — Conceptual Art carries an implication of rigor not only in the structure of the work, but also in the makers’ self-examination and self-awareness. But artificial, self-soothing hierarchies such as “my art-camp is better than your art-camp” would be the first to go if we were really being thorough in our thinking.

Ironically, it seems to me that truly strict rigor will always (eventually) dismantle hierarchies and lead to compassion.

I hope this helps.


Back to the conceptual & other poetry conference. Tracie Morris and Charles Bernstein opened the conference. Charles Bernstein performed a monologue, recanting his involvement in radical inaccessible poetics and promising to never ever again partake or promote it. From now on he’ll follow the poetics of the workshop writers of the 70’s and 80’s. Bernstein apologizes for his past involvement with meandering, obscure, intellectual, collaborative, social oriented prose. He apologizes for his techniques–fragmentation, collage, seriality, discontinuity, appropriation, multi-lingual languages, broken sentences and words. For all this nonsense. And for thinking that poetry could be a way of thinking. Instead he now promises to honor Poetry month and poetry contests and to write accessible poems that are appealing, emotional, narrative-oriented, sincere, authentic, traditional, in fashion, in Standard clear creative English, with right thinking, the best, the finest, the most profound, responding to the lives and feelings of ordinary run-of-the-mill folks. From now on he’ll work in solitude and stop writing criticism.

Bernstein used the framework of Galileo’s abjuration written when the Catholic Church forced him to recant his thesis that the world moves. Galileo’s writing was banned and for a period of time he was imprisoned. Charles’ performance was dramatic and set up some of the conflicts that have occurred in the past between mainstream poetics and other radical poetics. Of course, he’s being sarcastic. Like Galileo, his narrator is not apologizing for anything. Unlike Galileo who was a reverent catholic, Bernstein is not a member of the school of accessibility. There was a lot of laughter in the room. Bernstein was one of the central language poets (although he’s always been open to other poetics, too, and his own poetry is varied and more accessible than some. This piece was quite accessible). One might presume he’s laying out the historical differences between language poets and mainstreamers. We have to remember though that there was also a tension between these mainstream workshop poets (I believe Perloff once called their work Mc-poems) and the Beat poets, New York School, the Black Arts Movement, etc. And there was also a lot of tension (and overlapping) between the Language poets and some of these other radical deviations from the norm/the center. These disagreements didn’t show up, however, in Charles’ monologue. Of course there isn’t one poet we can focus on as representative of all the slamming and exclusion off-center poetries received. Historically, it looks like (to me and I might be wrong about this) that Galileo was singularly persecuted and later honored for his discovery. I’m sure I’m carrying this too far, as if it is an analogy between Bernstein and Galileo and it isn’t, it’s simply a rhetorical/fictional framework that was a very helpful opener for the conference.

Tracie Morris performed some of her verbal sound poems and variations, the sound of a vowel or a consonant becoming a thing of it’s own, and then morphing into something else that reveals something new. Conceptual performance poetries. Now and later in the conference –she sings, talks and analyzes African American sonic cultural practices, poetic tools and theories, transforming with against and in other contexts. The poetics of utterances and identity. I loved the sound of her voice. It was beautiful and sublime (to use subjective terms from the old world) and I liked witnessing how her poetry has changed over the years. Fifteen years ago when we were both semi-finalists in a poetry slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe—she was performing “My Boyfriend Says” and I was performing an Oulipian repeating and transforming poem, called “Satin Ribbons”. She won and I temporarily quit my career as a performance artist.

In the evening, Marjorie Perloff gave the keynote address, talking about conceptual poetry and the connection to past poetries – Language poetry, concrete poetries, Oulipo, and the effects of digital technology. She described conceptual poetry as attempting to avoid subjectivity and originality. She described a book by Kenneth Goldsmith in which he copies an entire issue of the NYTimes, and publishes it under his name. She talked about appropriation of other texts, montage, juxtapositon, using documentaries and assembling a new work of art from other texts. Perloff concluded by describing Benjamin’s Arcades as a conceptual project.

The next day I attended one group reading – Cole Swenson, Christian Bök, and Caroline Bergvall. Cole read first; I remember a poem about a French garden that eventually becomes a public park, from her book Ours. As she writes about this garden, she makes forays into philosophy, art, history. Her life history never seems to directly enter into the poem, but then it’s everywhere. Perhaps she has visited this park and walked through it (as well as walking through many books). That’s personal history, too, but the particulars of the walk (even if it’s only a walk in books) are hidden within the fictional framing. Through the lenses of other texts Cole takes the voice of others, shifting interest and point of view, refracting away from speaking or making a singular point. After she read this poem she talked about the politics of turning private property into public parks. I liked that segue. I’m attracted to conceptually-based writing or “otherness” like Cole’s, with her displaced “I”, and her way of morphing history and lyrical language, definitely an investigative poetic exploration.

Christian Bök then performed his dramatic sound poems, manifestos and monologues, ironic, loud, sarcastic, a narrator explaining and as he explains whatever it is he is explaining, language morphing into sound. Some of his work with repetition reminded me of some of Anne Waldman’s performances and some of those wild performances in years past in the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe on the lower east side and also of Marinetti and the Italian futurists.

Caroline Bergvall, read her monologues with language morphing from English into other dialects and languages. I enjoyed the rhythm and anticipating when the talk would slip into another register. Again all three of these poets worked with narrative framing while making weird turns and allowing eruptions in the texts. I enjoyed these readings the best of everything in the conference. I was unable to attend the Dworkin-Goldsmith reading.

After listening to the other readings on line, I still find it difficult to find much common ground between these poets except that they are all writing in opposition to the academic non-experimental workshop-model of the latter part of the 20th century. Some are conceptual purists and some are conceptually based as Miranda describes above. A little branching off here and there, but nothing really that astonishingly different, nothing that requires or demands a new name, a “new” movement.

Let me go on to the panels…

I attended three panels. The following is a compilation/collage of my notes. Beware—most of these quotes are not exact. There was a discussion of Poetry pregnant with thought and what this could mean and whether a birth takes place when we look at poetry as news that stays news. A comment was made by someone about conceptual poetry: way back when it was language poetry. At this conference, what I see is a generation of professional-poet-critics who are appropriating texts and manipulating language so reference is interrupted. Yea, and . . . performance poets and the New York School did this, too, but not so professionally. The work read at the conference seemed more accessible than language writing—perhaps because of those fictional frameworks. Charles Alexander pointed out that expression is always there even with a blank piece of paper with only the outline of a box. Someone said somewhere, written in the margins of my notes: And what is materiality, anyhow? Conceptual writing is project-based writing. Yes, projects from Homer to Pound to H.D. to Olson to the investigative poets and here in the world of the similar and not so similar perhaps but perhaps not conceptual writers. As points were made and unmade, I remembered Derrida’s little trace in an argument that can always be pulled out and unraveled. Some unraveling here. Brian Reed thanked everyone and acknowledged that it was an unusual circumstance for a critic to be able to hang out and talk with writers of this caliber about what they are doing. Vanessa Place brought the woman’s body into the room, assembling a response around the instructions for inserting a tampon, and taking us in and out of the intellect. While passing the mike, Marjorie Perloff admitted, We don’t even know what conceptual writing is... Everyone laughed in agreement.

Some of the points Bök made (again I’m paraphrasing): Poets have nothing to offer visuals artists anymore. If you want to find poetry, don’t look for it in poems. Students hate poetry. They know nothing about anything. The avantgarde is suffering from a lethal dose of seriousness. At one point he says that “newness” is different now, but he never explains what’s new. The value of the obvious. Bök can be entertaining. Charles Bernstein’s slide show: The absence of conception had itself to be conceived. At one point Charles intervened to remind everyone that You can’t be for or against subjectivity or emotion. Meaning is social and depends on context. I think that could be a helpful chant that could be played over and over at conferences like this, just so writers and critics don’t get too caught up in their individual discoveries and ideas.

Wystan Curnow: Pretext. . . Is the idea now more interesting than the application? Graça Capinha brought up some points about thingness as a reproduction of the market and an absence of perhaps political and emotional engagement in this post post modern writing. That point was later debated. She made an argument for attending to the emotions: No language is possible if the emotional part of your brain doesn’t work first. Stephen Fredman argued for a cross fertilization of art forms. He quoted Emerson: It’s as difficult to appropriate the work of others as to invent.

And then the conference closed with a question that made some of the participants uncomfortable, a question about why women at this point in time were pretty much excluded from the UBU web anthology. This is one of six or seven questions that Laynie Browne asked in a survey of 100 writers. She constructed a collage using some computer analysis program from the responses. Marjorie was upset about the question, referring to it as foolish and a non-issue in our times. Laynie noted that of all the women she had surveyed, Marjorie was the only one who was not disturbed. I was surprised at Marjorie’s response and at Barbara Cole’s “Hey I’m a gal and I wasn’t part of the survey . . . there is always an exclusion.” Words like essentialist and humanist and identity politics were thrown around. But when an anthology is presented as being a historical text and there were definitely women involved in this poetics and they were not included, this isn’t essentialism or humanism—it’s a straight out misrepresentation. When I listened to the tape of this discussion over again, it’s clear that Marjorie didn’t understand Laynie’s project—the collages were part of a survey of 100 poets. A conceptual computer framework was used to analyze/compose the results. And the point was not about asking for adequate representation for women despite their contribution. It was about publishing something and distorting history. It’s too bad this point wasn’t brought up earlier in the conference so there could have been more dialogue about it.

At home I started thinking, yea Miranda, a little white male b.s. here, too. I was wondering if I would have attended this conference if I were still living in NYC and the conference was held there. I’m not big on conferences; I’ve spent the last fifteen years trying to work myself out of the academy. Well, if it was a symposium at St. Marks, way back when they had symposiums, I would have attended, but then it would have been utterly different. First of all, the conference would have been organized by poets; the mission of the Poetry Project has always been poet-experimental oriented. The Poetry Center in Tucson does not have that same focus; they are a university organization and they represent a wide range of poetry. They do a good job at that and it was beneficial to have all these poets in Tucson at the same time and to have these discussions. Perhaps there were more attendees from the west and midwest because the airfare is cheaper. Or perhaps there are differences in emphasis depending on where we live. If the conference had been held in NYC, Bernadette Mayer probably would have been present and then the discussions about subjectivity and conceptual projects might have been quite different.

As I look back on a week of conversations during and after the conference, I finally agree with Vanessa Place’s assessment in her blog that one of the outcomes was a rejection of the narrow UBU definition of conceptual work and an openness to perpetual possible conceptual poetry projects and I’ll add “under various names, constraints and approaches.”

Most of the conference is now available on the Poetry Center’s website. You can listen to it–

You can also find the UBU anthology at

Here is Vanessa Place’s response to the conference –

Steve Katz’s Kissssss

I just finished reading Steve Katz’s latest book. Kissssss: A Miscellany (Fiction Collective 2, December 2007).

This is a very inventive book with stories spanning from poetic narratives to a manifesto to a full blown novelette, all grounded in the ordinary but inside that ordinary one or more extraordinary weird details or tendencies spin the characters off into a different world that reads like a spoof on the crazy world we live in.

There are kisses in every story in this book and they mean something different in each spot. In “The Derivation of the Kiss,” the first person narrator tells the story in lines and it’s about the narrator’s desire, as well as the author’s desire. Katz begins, “It was nineteen sixty-nine, in Iowa City.” The narrator has a thing for a clerk in a bookstore; he calls her Helen. He’s a writer. They go out to a club, but it turns into a nightmare with bikers attacking people, humiliating them and going off on the narrator and his fedora hat. One of the biker’s kisses him. Any minute a rape could occur. Lots of action in five pages. And Helen’s hiding behind a musician on stage when the narrator gets out and then the story ends with the writer’s desire:

What I have told here is the origin of the kiss, on page
Five hundred and thirty-two of Swanny’s Ways,
My novel, winner 1995 American Award in fiction
Which you can check out, if reading is your predilection.
If you’re curious did I ever kiss Helen, I can’t remember.
I could have once, maybe later, maybe in December.

Funny and a quick read. My favorite two stories in this collection are the last two and they are both great stories.

“Parrots in Captivity” is written in the first person, and I have a predilection for the first person. I like the range it allows, the width and breath of consciousness. How much wider can one get? The narrator here, Andrew, used to be an artist but now, he’s involved in some kind of straight job and he has an appointment with the President of the United States. The other characters are his girlfriend and his African Grey parrot whose name is also Andrew and who openly critiques Andrew: “I never thought I could do this, Andrew,” he mumbles, beak full of what-polly-wants. “But I was perched there in a quandary, saying to myself, Andrew, you good for nothing parrot guy, what the hell are you doing with your life? It’s crisis time. So just like that I went for it. And you know what? I can do it. I’ve got the right stuff. Andrew, my man, I’m a goddamned helicopter of redemption.”

It’s writing like this that makes Katz’s work so hilarious, and yet serious at the same time, offering a social critique. The language of ego psychology and Trump’s Apprentice. You can make it. You can do it. Here the artist who takes up another career, with money at the center.

The narrator Andrew (not a parrot but maybe a parrot) has a girlfriend named Ilayana, a performance artist who sticks her hand into CD slots “and a green mustard glow worms through the veins of her wrist.” She writes poems for her HIV, anti-war sequences: “I made this for the NEA. It’s in a form I invented called the Rumcroft.” Katz is making fun of politicians and also the stylized off-center artists for whom a political/human crisis is an opportunity for a successful artistic project. And I’m wondering: how can art critique or counter the politics of war and destruction when the image and the line is so quickly meaningless?

Narrator-Andrew is on his way to meet with the President. We aren’t sure why, but the Parrot-Andrew says,. “You tell the president not to blast Iraq so much with his technologically advanced boom-booms. He kills too many parrots.”
“Those are people, Andrew.”
“God is a parrot. You tell that to the president.”

The narrator-Andrew passes by the homeless, with signs playing into the mythology of the politican-war-mongers. Give me a dollar. “I am dying of aids… I am the enemy of all the enemies of my country. . . “I will kill for my country. . . I have no hope. I have no money.” At one point Andrew seems like a condescending used-to-be-an-artist liberal with friends in commodities and junk bonds. We don’t know why he is talking to the President, but he is. And Bush is posing, his secretary is posing; everyone is pretending they are in the movies. Katz goes on (and we think maybe Andrew is thinking this, too): “We must love him for his John Wayne swaggerette as he strains to make us think he’s a real Texas cowboy and not the mediocre Yale punk we know him for. It’s hard to make out just where evil resides. He has help, of course from the vice one, Cheney, smirking over his various oil fortunes, but making more; and the Goebbels of the bunch, Rumsfeld, small and self-important; and John Ashcroft, the poor, bloated fundamentalist.” This is Katz talking and/or Andrew has a social conscience. Back at home he finds Ilyana in bed with Andrew the Parrot, but nothing too serious. She’s actually rehearsing for an NEA performance. When the parrot questions Andrew-narrator about his interview with the President, Andrew says he “asked him whether he thought that in order to defeat the beast, we had to become the beast?” And the President says over and over, no matter what the question, like a stupid parrot: “God is on our side, and our weapons have pinpoint accuracy.” The parrot keeps asking, “Did he say anything about the parrot’s dilemma?” “He says it will take as long as it takes, and to stop whining.”

In the end, Andrew sits in front of the television. We all sit in front of the television, waiting to see what happens. “I have, I know, an illusion of separation from the misery out there by this thin green veil of money. This is money I have earned. We have seen how volatile the green veil is. How quickly we can be exposed, and onto the street. An omen of conflagration, and it’s gone, all security. I live there in a world of bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts. Andrew lives with me. Ilyana is here sometimes. Outside of where I live the life blisters, the life of others. Inside, the pressures are slight, and have little significance. But what is outside, and what is inside all is taken into the heart, weighed and measured there, and it does weigh, and this is what is meant when the heart is heavy.”

And the parrot repeats: “The heart is heavy. The heart is heavy. Grawk.”And “so what” I think. We of heavy hearts sit. And the war machine goes on. Katz’s story is witty, ironic, ridiculous and devastating.

In the last story in the collection, “Nowadays and Hereafter, there has been a natural disaster, a storm, and we are on the shore with Tignee, a net maker. He has just lost his wife and his son and his baby in the storm. He is migrating away from the ocean. The story is told in the third person, but the voice is very close to the subjectivity of Tignee. And the reader is very close to the loss Tignee has just experienced. The story begins from the heart rather than from the witty mind as in many of the other stories. Tignee is grieving, a wanderer in a world of strangers who all seem as if they could be his family. A boy runs by with his arms outstretched. Was he his son? It doesn’t matter anymore. Tignee comes to a place where the children live in the trees. Little by little we come to know, and so does Tignee that he is living with ghosts. Some of the people are fleeing from the sea and others are fleeing from the “power of hatred and war.” Tignee comes to know so much. “Life is the most temporary acccident.” He and the ghosts build a new world from the bones of others. There is a mythic quality to this story.. The war machine is eating people and ghosts. Finally Tignee organizes a group of ghosts and they make a big net a trap for the war mongers, and then they head back, returning to the sea.

This last story is a beautiful tale, a fine conclusion to Steve Katz’s Kissssss. Kisssssss off war mongers. We are going back to the sea, from dust to dust, from bones to seed, to start over again.

Recent publications and Excerpts from Reviews of My Autobiogrpahy


“Dear Hunting” – Forthcoming in print newspaper, The Brooklyn Rail, Winter 2008 (

From “An Arc Falling Into the Bougainvillea.” Reconfigurations: A Journal for Poetics and Poetry / Literature and Culture. Issue 1, 2007.

“Cities and Memory”. Photographs and Text. Upcoming at Cyberpoems.
Originally published by Imaginary Cities, a journal connected with an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, entitled “Shrinking Cities”, 2007. Also as a limited edition photo-poem booklet (Long News).

From “The Animal I am”. Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Number 34. Winter/Spring 2007.

“Little Tesuque.” In Eoagh, Issue four. 2007

“Seventh Street” Forthcoming in Zen Monster, Issue #1, 2008.

“A Telephone Interview with Maureen Owen on Erosion’s Pull.” Talisman, Number 35, Fall 2007. WILL BE AVAILABLE SHORTLY ON MY WEBSITE AS A PDF.


My Autobiography, reviewed by Mark Terrill in Rain Taxi, Print Version, Vol 12, No 2., Summer 2007

The idea for Barbara Henning’s book My Autobiography stems from a collaboration with the artist Miranda Maher, who clipped off the corners of 999 books from Henning’s personal library for an installment entitled “999.” Henning then constructed a series of seventy-two untitled sonnet-like poems consisting of seven couplets each—selecting a word, phrase, or passage from each of the 999 books, using alliteration as a rough common denominator. . . .The result is a neo-Oulipian synaptic joyride through a series of evocative, hilarious, and surprising contrasts, parallels, and combinations. At the end of the book is a comprehensive index listing all of the various sources for each individual line. One can either read the poems just as they are, letting the lines play off the mind and ear without knowing who wrote what, or one can work their way through wile comparing each line with the index, only to be all the more amazed at how seamless and fluid the transitions actually are, who’s doing it with whom, and what magic has been created in the process. . . . While the use of such generative constraints is nothing new, My Autobiography is not just a derivative spin-off from William Burrough’s cut-up oeuvre or Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, nor is it just another cento exercise in the vein of John Ashberry’s “The Dong with the Luminose Nose.” It was Oulipo member Harry Mathews who said that “writing the truth means not representation but invention”; in My Autobiography, by way of a deft combination of constraints and supple editing, Barbara Henning has conjured up a sort of truth by proxy by merely letting the language speak for itself in an inventive way.

My Autobiography (United Artists 2007) Reviewed by Bill Kushner in The Poetry Project Newsletter, December 2007/January 2008.

These sonnets are truly Objectivist creatures (Henning dedicates her book to Louis Zukofsky). What’s more interesting about these poems to me? Woven, as they are, with the raw material of language I think they are often funny, and they give a picture of our times and poetics in a weird way. . . . It’s stuff like this that refreshes the language. It’s langaue giving back to language the beauty of the unexpected. . . . I strongly urge more readers to take My Autobiography in hand, and find your own favorite passages in this most challenging and adventurous book.

Brenda Coultas, The Marvelous Bones of Time

The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, by Brenda Coultas (Coffee House Press, 2007)

When I first turn the pages of the The Marvelous Bones of Time I take a breath—the beauty of the space and the fractured lines. I love unevenness. In Book 1—The Abolition Journal—I find myself following Brenda—I’m sure it’s Brenda and not a narrator—as she explores and maps out the place where she grew up. She wonders who am I, where do I come from, what is this place, what is this language: “I was a Midway Panther”, “I (am a color”, “I knew the names”. We are following her on a poetic research project, through memory, observation, digging through texts and talking to people. And the past is always there in the present, the language transformed over time, but still when you set it side by side, piece by piece, Hoozier, Yankee, and those lyrical wonderings and speculations, Whitman-like repetitions, one poetic moment beside another moment, Brenda maps out a life and the uneven traces left behind. How do we define ourselves? Who are we? Here the emancipation proclamation comes back again and again as the border between then and now, between him and her, between them and us. between Kentucky and Indiana. At one point we get on a train with Brenda and she’s talking to “the only African American passenger on board” and he tells her “Owensboro [is] Heaven”. The next thing you know, in the next poem, we’re in Owensboro, Kentucky, walking down the street as she reports on her project.

The second half of the book is a collection of short ghost stories. The three stories I like the best are “A True Account of When We lived in a Haunted House”, “Where You’ll Be” and “The Shed”. The first one is a story of a welder and fashion model (Brenda did work as a welder) who is stalked by an unknown man who eventually forces her to relocate. A haunting? The fear of the unknown stalking you. “Where You’ll be” is a story about a father who dies; it’s an anti-ghost story, an ordinary quirky story about living with death.

“My sister placed a brand new set of socket wrenches in my father’s coffin. The coffin was not very plush: in fact, it was bottom of the line; my mother wanted to spend a thousand dollars more for a plumped-up one, but we talked her out of it because he had always said not to worry about the dead, it is the living who suffer. The burial policy and veteran’s benefits give us about five thousand to spend, just enough to cover the cost, including something for my uncle Harry who worked part time for the funeral home. My father said he didn’t want any flowers, just a rose in a Coke bottle. But he did get flowers, some with angels that played music; he got basket and plants, most still living. My father didn’t have a suit, so we buried him in Uncle Jim’s old clothes and thought we better call Little Jimmy and warn him, so he wouldn’t be shocked to see my dad laid out in his father’s suit. We sent my father out into the cold darkness, wearing another man’s clothes.

“When I think of death, I tell myself that I’m going to where my father is, and if he’s there, that’s a good place to be. I’m going to the place where all have gone before me, and that’s what makes me human.”

Great advice for living. I love the simplicity of this story growing out of ordinary daily life. But finally the story I like the best is “The Shed,” a continuation of Brenda’s earlier film project. First there are stage directions to make a film in our mind of a pig shed and life around the pig shed, but the pig shed doesn’t exist anymore. It’s there in the film and it’s also gone. And the story is about that process of being and not-being. There are directions for us to create this film in our minds: “Dig a wallow and fill with water.” Then there are children throwing their dinner scraps into the “hog slop” and a reference I think to the ghost child in The Scarlet Letter, Pearl: “Can you film the ghost of Pearl? Pan out to the humans, on bicycles and foot, rooting in junkyards on the old Moore place, rooting in ravines full of abandoned cars.” Then a close up to perhaps the center of the memory, inside the consciousness of a little girl in the pig shed: “I am a small human, so small that my underpants come up to my armpits”. And then we move back in time with the narrator for an overview: “I dreamed of so many treasures buried in the earth or of just bones, all the bones buried by time, nature, or natives. Given eternity, we could find marvelous bones.” Coultas is a collector, a collagist, a materialist, an objectivist, placing bits of language and narrative side by side, or at angles, and the white space around them gives the impression: yes we were here, yes all is lost, but yes with a little digging around, we’ll discover again the past in the present—quirky, deep, ridiculous, outrageous, frightening and sometimes reassuring. In this collection, with this investigative project, Brenda excavates the marvelous human and pig bones in time and place. Thanks, Brenda.

Roberto Bolano’s By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile. Roberto Bolano. Translated by Chris Andrews. New Directions. 2003. 130 pages. A challenging book to read when you are busy and can only read ten to twenty pages a night. But worth it. One long paragraph in the mind of a dying priest who is looking back on his life, not confessing, instead justifying his way of living. Very long spiraling sentences. He’s agitated by a “wizened youth” who I keep expecting to turn up in the text, but he never does, just a fly buzzing around the priest. A dying priest who writes poetry and criticism and enjoys the benefits of Chilean literary society under Pinochet. He makes the sign of the cross and at the same time ignores what is going on around him. He secretly teaches Pinochet and his military leaders about Marxism, knowing they are going to use this knowledge to oppress leftists. His compassion for the poor is just a ritual. Mostly he is disgusted by them. But he sometimes says he admires Neruda (but not for his politics for a poetic phrase or stance) and a critic he calls Farewell, another compromised human being who advocates high culture writing and socializing. In the tunnels in the basement of all this high thinking and elitism, there is a secret. We come to realize that the wizened youth knows this secret and he’s been tormenting the priest with his knowledge and writings. As the priest tunnels down through his memories, never really looking deeply into the rooms around him (but the reader gets the idea that something isn’t right in all of his rooms) and finally under the house where the literati meet there is a room with a naked man, tied up and suffering from torture. Religion, high culture and the military join hands to oppress, murder and destroy.

Another Fantastic Bill Kushner Poem


It’s sometimes a language that when you hear it
you think oh I’ve heard that. You may even think
you too could speak it, just repeat after me. You
may even think you understand it, well of course
I understand it. It’s when you’re on the sidelines
I mean on the wrong side no not even that you’re
just like a tiny listener standing sideways listening.
So don’t get too wet and upset about it, but that’s
just me talking in that language, or pretending to be
talking in that language and don’t I just sound smart?

“People don’t do things like that,” he would say,
chewing fast. Inhaling his wisdom, I sat at his feet
and listened, him wet paint splattered pure red, “I
got these great lists, kid, I got all these lists, alls of
do’s and don’ts and alls mostly don’ts, great don’ts,
and so don’t get all screwy, not to do.” Him jumping
like high up to heaven and then down and all the while
talking, are you one of them talkers, huh, too? “Like
think of Madonna, mother and child, and how trembling
they came to the window looking out over vast Wicked
City, and then turned back, and I mean they turned back.”

Me, I still sat as a thief at his feet and I listened, chewing
on air, dreamy as one. “People don’t walk, kid, like that,”
into Motel 8 round midnight, as if who gives a flying
you know, “my way or the highway,” and so there I was,
and such as I was, poor little Mr. Scarecrow, thumbs out,
and no ride for miles, “mmm,” licking it up. So he wrote
on my feet, “Careful, dreamboy.” We who walk around
moaning, bumping against all these earth things, the hush,
the mush. “I don’t require much,” I told the nice therapist,
who then told his wife, who then told her puppy, Lucky.
“Lucky,” she’d whisper, holding him to her and stroking
his trembling fur. He said there was no future for such a
one as me, and then he bit me hard, hard enough to draw
blood, it came out like red words red, and him licking it up.

Bill Kushner 10/2/07

Roberto Bolano

A month ago, I bought Roberto Bolano’s novel The Savage Detectives, and I was so excited after reading it that I ordered all of his books translated into English. He’s one of the best contemporary fiction writers I’ve read in a long time. The Savage Detectives is a 600 page novel about a group of off-center/underground poets in Mexico; he calls them the vicereal realists. Here and there in the middle of the book, poets we know and love are mentioned or appear–Ted Berrigan, for example. The narrative is fractured. In the middle section of the book–most of the book–the story takes place in and out of a series of oral histories with familiar and unfamiliar people appearing and disappearing. And little by little the mystery unfolds — the life of a group of poets who believed in their poetics, their opposition to the mainstream ideology and poetry — Octavio Paz figures large here–and this zig zag mission ends up being a search for a woman poet, one of the original vicereal realists who disappeared into Mexico. What I love about the book is the way the narrative voice unfolds so easily, the lives of the these poets on the borderline between violence, poverty and stability, reminding me a lot of many poets, artists and muscians I’ve known both in NYC and in Detroit, people who live their lives and poetry challenging the lies inherent in the status quo. Robert Belano and the character Arturo Beleno have had an extra difficult struggle and insight–some of them escaped after the coup in Chile and lived as exiles in Mexico and Spain and Africa.

Last night I finished a collection of his storiesLast Evenings on Earth; these stories are beautiful, starting out ordinary and then these incredible twists and turns, so fluid, the lives of poets, a poet, Roberto Bolano writing with the freedom of fiction. Like many of my friends, he died from liver damage, from hepititis.

At night when I finish one of his stories, I think, I love this guy, I really do love his sensibility, and I think, yes, yes, just write the truth and just like that, in the ordinary intimate voice in which you think and speak. In his stories, the fractured inventive form grows right out of the ordinary intimate, the ordinary fractured reality of the lives.

Burt Kimmelman

The poet, Burt Kimmelman, sent me an email a few weeks ago with a poem about reading a few of my little photo-poem pamphlets. I liked it and so I’m posting it here… Thanks Burt.

Reading Barbara Henning’s Poems

I think of the possibilities, the

worlds we move through, of what can happen in

the heat of a summer day or the chill

of an autumn night whose bare stars cover

the hills outside Santa Fe, or a street,

emptied of people and even moving

cars in Manhattan’s East Village, music

intruding from an open window. The

next day people everywhere talk past each

other. We all borrow someone’s precious

words for awhile and then we make them

our own, and then we turn them around in

poems, not what we expect. They are a

toilet overflowing in Delhi. They

are flowers pushing up out of the soil

in Aunay. And they are a woman in

Detroit who “carefully winds her daughter’s

hair into little curls.” Everywhere, in

the daylight, people go through their routines –

as if we can live out our lives without

poems – but at night they haunt us, we who

dream when awake, we who dream when asleep,

they having come from the desert beyond

the city to settle in for some time.

Bill Kushner’s In Sunsetland With You

Last week I finished reading a new book by Bill Kushner, In Sunsetland With You (Strawgate Books/Phyllis Wat) and I was incredibly moved by this book, so fluid, so funny, so heartbreaking. After reading the book I fell asleep and dreamt I was in lala land with Bill.

All Those Old Weird Songs

Lincoln in the bathroom, what’s he
doing? I hear him humming singing
weird songs, it’s whenever he’s sadlike
all these old weird songs, songs I
do swear that I ain’t never heard of
all these damn sad hymns. Lincoln’s

Voice is what gets me to shivering. Lin-
coln’s voice, as deep and as true as the win-
ter wind, cutting deep into every part of
me, shivering along. I open the door for
a tiny peek in. Old faucet dripping. But
where have you gone, Linc? Lincoln gone.


That Night

Skateboarding at midnight, me, Mister
Rabbit, and the big guy, Mister Honest
Abe. “Why they call you Honest, huh?
I tell lies all the time. Hell, I even like to
lie to myself all the time. Hell, I like to
tell lies. Hell, Lincoln, the holy truth
sucks. It’s a fucked world and the
damned truth sucks. Our almighty leaders
have led us fucking amuck!” “My word,”
said Mister Rabbit, “such a naughty
tongue for a little ten-year-old bunny.”

“Rabbit’s right!” the Lincoln chimes in.
“The truth is what we the people don’t
want to hear, and so that’s why I tell it.
And the truth’s you’re growing wild as
the wind, boy, what’s the big problem?”

“That’s me,” I says, breezing along
down Main Street, USA, “the fucking
wind! For I am America, the beautiful!
Now you see me, whee! Now I’m gone.
Kaboom!” When I stop and look around,
I see I’m alone. “Alone!” No one
on the dark street, no, no one. “Fuck
you both. Fuck you all, then!” One
purple neon sign flickering something,
nothing, off, on, off, then gone, alone.

Bill told me the other day ago when we were eating lunch at Angelicas that he wrote this book right after he was ill a few years ago. And he told me he has always had an imaginary friend. Reading some essays today for a class I’m teaching on Saturday on the French New Novel, and Nathalie Sarraute writes about writers and imaginary partners “who emerge from out our past experiences, our daydreams, and the scenes of love or combat between us”, populating the space where our novels emerge and movements “are set in motion.” That’s what Bill does in this poem-novel, remembering/living the life of Billy, old and/simultaneously growing up with his friend Abe Lincoln, with his gray eyes and his glistening body. And Abe’s there to talk to about the war in Iraq, and the last war, and all those wars before, about those dying, Billy’s father dying in the world war two, his mother dwindling away, about his loneliness as a young man, “seems like them fairies, they always/need saving,” says Lincoln, and then just as suddenly as his father dies in the war, his mother dies, Lincoln takes off, leaving Billy running along the highway, alone. And then a new poem, “Born”, and the voice is no longer that man/child’s voice, but now the voice of an old man of the city.

Old as methuselah, I was born yesterday
In the baths, a man took me to the moon
& when I came back down to earth
Why I was the same old fool I always was

Coughing exhausted cars buses taxis go by me
Where am I going? looking for somewhere
something to believe in besides last night’s trick

. . .

You take the wheel, old man says, old
Bag of wrinkles, what wars he’s seen?
How many sailors seen off at their piers
Waving his hanky, tearing his tears? You
Take the wheel while I blow you, yea,

Bill writes lyrical, personal poetry that celebrates and mourns dailyness, laying out the secrets of ordinary nyc life, apples and buses and blowjobs and . . .”Oh Spring, you arrive on a song” One of the things I admire about Bill Kushner is his practice. He writes poetry every day. In a coffee shop at night, he watches two young women kiss and he says “I stop to write this tiny souvenir of our life on earth”. His poems are collections of these souvenirs of our life on earth. Utter honesty. Beautiful Song. He’s sailing over the city like a modern day Whitman and he ends the book “by this dark church, St. Mark’s/ They say you are haunted, St. Mark’s /they say the ghosts of great poets wind down your stairways.” Buy this book. Read it is terrific. Bill Kusher is one of the real live living singing and loving poets I’ve known in NYC. I love him and his poems.

News from Spain: A poem by Laurie Price

the master recycler puts her shoulder to the wheel

There is no time. It is stooped and frail.
However, am glad to be alive. The apparitional
single phrase: echo she is the knowledge he was
after, wasted, not what he was expecting, it could be
to torment your graces, expressed, is
to value them; do them no harm no harm
to anything, constantly, dispassionately, inevitably
free to be nothing or nothing in particular,
consider the griefs in trying to be special.