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 –

Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New

This week I read Dominique Fabre’s novella, The Waitress Was New (Archipelago Books, 2008, Jordan Stump, trans.)

I like holding this book, 117 pages, paperback, 5 by 6 inches, just a little bigger than a pocket book. I feel as if I am carrying around something personal, a little bit of Pierre the waiter-barman at Le Cercle Cafe in Paris. I put him under my pillow for a few nights. The title leads me to think at first that the narrative will be about the new waitress who appears in the first sentence, but then I discover that she is incidental to this story. She replaces the regular waitress as a temporary worker and then as the days go on, the owner disappears leaving Pierre and the cook to deal with the owner’s wife and a cafe in need of supplies and the owner, and then the new waitress leaves too. The events are not as important here as the tone and continuity of these rather “incidental” characters. Pierre has worked here for years and the regulars have come in regularly. Then the owner has a new affair and he disappears. Nonetheless, Pierre seems to accept whatever comes next. He consoles the wife and accompanies her as she anxiously wonders about her husband and his infidelity. Pierre has no lovers now. He goes home alone and we are alone with him. And then the wife disappears too. No one is thinking about Pierre and the cook Amedee or the regulars. Just buy a cafe somewhere else and let them go where they will. Pierre is reading Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. He admires Levi and his courage. Pierre looks around, and then goes home to figure out his retirement. He hadn’t thought about it before. And now when he counts his paychecks, he discovers that after many years he must find another position. There is something delicate and beautiful about Pierre’s resignation.

It doesn’t really matter what happens in the novel. What I like most is the intimate catalogue of Pierre’s daily life, the thoughts he records as he observes the drama of the lives of those in the cafe and then at night as he withdraws to his own apartment. I put his book under my pillow when I go to sleep. The book is like a window into the community of people in this neighborhood and into Pierre’s internal life. As a writer I am attracted to this type of intimate casual voice, seeming like text clipped right out of a life. I’m looking forward to reading other novels by Fabre as they are translated.

Here’s an early paragraph–

“The new girl was already setting tables back in the dining room. There’s nobody here in the morning but the kids from the high school, usually just two or three of them, this is where they come to skip class They don’t always have enough cash for a Coke, or even a coffee. I’m well known around here, they call me by my first name, I can’t always keep them straight but generally it’s a pleasure to see them. We also get people waiting for a phone call to set their course for the day, and housewives from the villas behind the train station, they come in together for a cup of coffee before the head off to the shops. He gave a big sigh and asked what he owed. Without my noticing, the boss had left by the back door, next to the old dumbwaiter from before they renovated the cafe. Sometimes he uses the front door like every-one else, but now and then he slips out on the sly. They live above Le Cercle.” (14)

John Godfrey’s City of Corners (Wave Books)

Last year between Christmas and New Years I was in nyc staying in a friend’s apartment. One night I was walking along First Avenue. It was cold and dark and kind of miserable with very few people on the street. It gets like that in the East Village around the holidays. Quiet. The homeless huddled under blankets. My nose was bleeding. Then I looked up and John Godfrey was coming down the sidewalk. Hi. How long are you in town? Just a few more days. Hey, John, you’re just the person I wanted to see. I need a nurse. How come my nose won’t stop bleeding? This has been happening on and off ever since I got on the airplane in Tucson. I was standing there on the corner in the cold holding a bloody kleenex against my nose. Nothing to worry about. It’s the dry air. Just pinch your nose and hold your head forward a bit until it stops. I thought something terrible was wrong with me. No just the dry air, the heat, you know. We say nice things to each other about our writing and then along we go. Just an ordinary encounter on the corner.

This week I’ve been reading John’s new book City of Corners (Wave Books).

Right at the beginning, there is a bounce:

And you go down that street
Rainbows ahead bling you
like midnight never does
and I wonder where
evening will be tonight
My loved ones waiting there

Who are these loved ones? I wonder. This tough poet guy is a nurse who for many years has gone door to door helping aids patients in poverty ghetto areas of Brooklyn. The poet-speaker-narrator in this first poem “pretends his swagger” as he moves through the street passing in and out of the pages in this book with the orphans, barflies, beggars, prostitutes, drug addicts and all of us. Nothing else to do but keep walking: “Hips do the work/and I cross the world.”

After a few poems, I realize I am trying to construct a narrative, to solve the shifting pronouns in these poems. Who is this “she” that appears here and there and then sometimes segues into the “you” and the “you” is often the poet talking to himself. And the “she” is the illusive woman on the street: “She sees herself scurry and hide/She claps an eye before white lines/and lives on up close/to where the beautiful king.”

Is the poet in love with the woman? Yes, he is, and is not the lover. He is a brief encounter, an imaginary doctor. “I had better not help you” (12). “The idea of a rematch is repugnant/ . . The heartless appear in a flattering light (13), With these brief encounters, there is this heart beat and a restraint as the poet looks on the suffering of others and of the self. “I’m talking about you/The vein is exhausted/Press back on the wind/Lips not fit to kiss” (15). And the passersby merge into his consciousness and he is one with them “the inside and the outside corners overlap/The path she has chosen treads to a window/Things they hurl at the indigent/She is so very far from the scramble” (16)

And this woman, this she, who appears on a corner is the muse who disappears in a shadow. “Gust conforms her clothing/When she walks she rides” (20). And the poet walks on. “She seems to wait for me/Left no other choice/We cross with the light” (17). Whenever we meet on a corner in the city, or anywhere for that matter, there is the possibility of anything happening: “Require breath in identical ways/Diverge because it is hip/Do not save changes” (18). Yet most of the time, we continue to the next corner.

Under the clothing, there is a body to be examined, diagnosed, and saved even though there is no saving possible. “Glory in her pocket” (23). “You loosen the rope/You hang better/across her back” (24) The interaction between the abstract words and clauses bump up against each other like a mind making sense in a random chaotic way and then suddenly an image, a person appears.

Events fly in the face of ingenuity
Clutter in the descent from birds
Reconstitute suspension of self
I notice the skin between breasts. (19)

The abstractions are like shards of glass in the sky—abstract words and phrases collaged with prepositions becoming philosophical wondering layered into a world-text. And then boom, the syntax evolves and an image, a person, a narrative appears.

Impulses chafe and become brittle
Clap of thunder herds the one-armed
Depravity compares well to contagion
Anatomy deflates upon its ideals
Ravages denied to the degree they’re untamed
To use denuded land to sour the blood
The wild girl offers you her card
and the brown waters of her skin become fluent.

When I stand in the cradle of blasphemy
Ambrosian tongue of flame degrades exposure
With no effort I admit ballast
to the stage peopled with clowns and thugs
I can dig how some grasp life as a swap meet
But my chains lack that link
I watch a hand convert a child’s forehead
The curl of a rind in sunlight
Lower eyelid hovers above a blue shadow
I am the only one left to consume.

This dark melancholic wandering. “I can’t understand how discipline/is of any concern to the annihilated” (27). Neither can I; that is, after you accept yourself as annihilated, there is no more need for discipline. It’s over. But until then, discipline helps. And the woman goes on—”she dodges calamity” (27).

There’s an acute awareness of the body and desire and annihilation in almost every poem in this book–the nurse-poet’s wandering body and the bodies that he encounters on all those corners. You go this way. I go that way around the space to the next line. In between I offer you a remedy for a moment, to avoid calamity. “The women linking the stairs are biased/and she hides in one palm the gold gaming chip” (55). “What color they will paint her/when she dies depends on/how quickly they forget/what you call paradise” (79). The game. And then the wounds and recovery. “I dream myself large/to overcome the forgetfulness/your death enables and/the fraction of survival” (68) Our ghosts and dreams dissipate. “I spy her through an orchard of smoke” (74) This book reads like a series of riddles, like love is a riddle, death is a riddle, these are love riddle songs in the dark—

Through the Wall

I forsake your lips
to get in on the action
Then you are gone
and I get along

Direction all I lack
I catch myself in time
Angles all discordant
No way through the wall

I take what I need
Between me and nothing
stands what I want
When that’s enough I know

Will you know me
Not at twenty feet
You pass like water
I can always call your star (72)

The muse here is the other, the otherness of the body across from us, around the corner, over there, back there in the past. “This otherness has grown/onto us from the earth/If you all/hear the supreme/Artificial sky opens/You an island in it.” We can stay lost, suffer deeply, wander around corners and still realize a direction as the poet does here: “I have no purpose at last/and put myself to use” (93). John Godfrey is a karma yogi—to be useful in the world to those who suffer, and to write these black jewel like fractured poems for our contemplation. How does one find joy when one sees annihilation around every bend? Look for the beauty in the shards, in the poetry. I am happy to have spent this week reading John Godfrey’s City of Corners.

New Novel by Barbara Henning : Thirty Miles To Rosebud

My new novel is now available from BlazeVox. Any one interested in reviewing let me or Geoffrey Gatza at BlazeVox know. Thanks to all. Barbara

Order from

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  • Here’s some of the PR:

    Title: THIRTY MILES TO ROSEBUD 232 pp.
    Author: Barbara Henning ISBN 13: 9781935402251
    Genre: Literary Fiction LOC 2009923618
    Release Date: November 15, 2009 $18.00
    Publisher: BlazeVox 800-869-7553
    Cover by Miranda Maher


    Thirty Miles to Rosebud is a mystery, a journey of self-discovery, a love story, and a story of bohemian life in the United States in the 70s and 80s. As a young teenager, Katie runs away from her home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a boyfriend, a van and little else. She leaves behind her father and the cabin where she grew up, along with visceral memories of her mother and the landscape of her childhood, the dense forests and dark blue of Lake Superior. The novel shifts between rural and urban landscapes—jazz clubs in Detroit, Hari Krishnas in Tompkins Square, Vietnam War vets in a VA hospital, driving through the desert, a makeshift apartment on a rooftop in NYC, underground music clubs in the East Village, and a yoga shala in Mysore, India. All of these stories unfold seamlessly with a lyrical, calm and almost contemplative narrative voice as Katie searches on the road and through memory for a long-lost friend and the roots of her fractured sense of self.


    Thirty Miles To Rosebud depicts a series of imploding families and fast interstates. Barbara Henning’s landscapes—a rust-belt childhood, a nearly forgotten East Village Bohemia and the arid Southwest streaked with the setting sun—are populated by runaways, lost loves and lifelong betrayals. In this remarkable novel, Henning’s eye for detail and her emotional honesty enables the past to loom in the rear-view mirror long after the car has sped by. Donald Breckinridge

    One of Barbara Henning’s great accomplishments is the voice we came to appreciate in You, Me, and the Insects. It presents her world with a candor both companionable and profound, both disengaged and intimate. She has no agenda but to tell her own story, which is the story physical, emotional, and spiritual, of her generation. Wisdom enters her telling as easily as a deer crosses a road. And many deer do, because this is a book in line with Celine’s crazed Castle To Castle, Douglas Woolf’s Wall to Wall, Kerouac’s romantic On The Road, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thirty Miles to Rosebud stands with all of them as one of the great memoir road novels of our time. Steve Katz

    Author’s Bio—

    Barbara Henning is the author of two other novels, You, Me and the Insects and Black Lace (Spuyten Duyvil). Her books of poetry include My Autobiography, Detective Sentences, Love Makes Thinking Dark, Smoking in the Twilight Bar. A collection of prose and poetry, Cities & Memory, is forthcoming from Chax Press in 2010. She teaches creative writing courses in the MFA programs at Long Island University in Brooklyn and for Naropa University in Boulder. A native Detroiter and a long time resident of New York City, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona.

    Warming at Simon Pettet’s Hearth

    In Hearth (Talisman, 2008), Simon Pettet is in love and in loss with his lover, the street, his suffering and he’s singing and musing about it in an odd slanted way.

    Instead of giving an answer, he left.
    Later, he wrote a long letter
    without saying a word about it.
    No one was wiser. (2)

    There’s an answer in Simon Pettet’s poems but it is always a sideways glance. He often yokes the most profound problems and situations with the most ordinary, for example holding back the flood of the Nile that carries “flotsam and jetsam” and “Give up cigarettes. Avoid all forms of poison.” Hold back the flood with personal restraint. And then we are swept away with the poem and our lives. There are details that seem everlasting and then the reminder of our fragility–

    the robin and the butterfly
    and the leaf and the flame
    and the extinction (121)

    Or everything can be deeply philosophical until Simon turns it upside down and makes it ordinary—

    You once said that I was
    Ruminating deep red was it? but I was
    doing no such thing

    I was just giving poetry readings. (66)

    Many of the poems are humorous, and very 70-80-90 New York School and of course Simon is part of New York School St. Marks Poetry Project community. One of my favorite early poems, and I think it is from the 70’s, is “Wireless” dedicated to Harris Schiff. I am not an uninvolved observer here. I know both of these poets and I hear the sound of Harris’s voice in between the lines and I definitely hear Simon’s voice when he writes. “Wired? Not me, Sheriff, I’m much too old for that” (9).For a moment I think I’m at St. Marks, sitting behind these two, during intermission.

    But I’m spoiled ma like our hound dog, or a spaceman,
    I can think of nothing higher than the moon. (12)



    will not bother
    the scholar
    who bought the house

    and who wrote
    the definitive book

    on “the third eye”

    and who lives alone now
    (possibly in the back there)

    in reflected ghost-light,
    (the naked bulb),

    drinking beers,
    and watching re-runs

    The Twilight Zone (144)

    With simple humor and straight out general statements about emotions and love, he then veers off in quirky directions.


    When you permit me to see
    With lucidity my anger
    Know that it shines straight
    Into your dark forest

    Cutting through the inadequacies
    With which we clothe ourselves
    Like brambles So illuminating
    That private place like some good soldier
    That we call our heart (21)

    Anger becomes warrior light into the heart and at the same time little spikes that shelter vulnerability. Sometimes Simon is ecstatic, like Rimbaud, or Elio Schneeman: “O winter of New York!/how decidedly damp you are!…/containing whole universes!” (25) “It’s the truth!/ O Jump Now before balmy death/Time shall not take away our breath. (52) Or “it is water!—/our/every/fucking/precious/sparkling/moment!” (174).

    Then there are the jagged combination of things arranged in
      &nbsp unexpected ways–
    The books on the sidewalk are dutifully arranged
    The officer is a moonlighter because he works at the other precinct
    Dance performers from around the world are advertised on a torn
    poster. I can’t see them though, since my dog is blind. I make a wish.
      &nbsp I wish
    for another one. The tethered akita is granted a reprieve. All of this
      &nbsp all the
    time. Every conceivable moment. All the worlds you’d ever want to know.
      &nbsp (128)


    The mathematics of birdsong
    has eluded me until the present
    Laconic cable messages
    speeding over the wires (83)

    “The mathematics of birdsong”, all these poems shooting back and forth over the internet. Here always the hard look at life but with a tender heart, optimism, and a raised eyebrow. And then a wink.

    I am squatting like the proverbial egg on a wall
    White concrete, it will hurt me if I fall
    It is the hour of mid-to-late afternoon
    Summer seems—and actually is—endless (170)

    Simon Pettet’s poems are at times philosophical, lyrical, spacey, funny, sad, weird, leaving us with the image of Humpty Dumpty, teetering on the edge of the wall. He is fragile and he will fall. And so will we. We can endlessly worry about it or we can celebrate our endless summer with the sun on the back of the squatting boy, the hearth of the present. Thanks Simon for giving us this Hearth.

    New Review of Thirty Miles to Rosebud
    by Marc Schuster

    SEPTEMBER 26, 2009…6:32 PM
    Thirty Miles to Rosebud

    It’s tempting to say that time and space are the villains of Barbara Henning’s Thirty Miles to Rosebud. After all, several decades and an entire continent separate the protagonist, Kate, from the best friend she lost track of during her teenage years, and the quest to find the friend seems, at times, hopeless. Despite the years and miles that separate the friends, however, Kate persists in her journey, intent on returning a shoebox full of memories to her erstwhile friend, Peggy. Along the way, she has ample opportunity to reflect on her life, on the inevitable onset of middle age and all that it encompasses, and on myriad twists and turns that brought her into her life. In other words, she gets a chance to reflect upon time, space, circumstance, and everything else that made her into who she is and, as she does so, comes to a stronger understanding of herself. Time and space, it turns out, are not quite villains and definitely not heroes, but necessary evils, bittersweet agents in the ongoing motion of our lives.

    Thirty Miles to Rosebud moves along at a meditative pace, and appropriately so. As a storyteller, Henning is in no hurry to move her reader from point A to point B. Rather, she allows her universe to unfold organically, and Kate’s search for Peggy gives her plenty of time to reflect on a number issues, not the least of which is her ambivalence toward the hedonistic ethos that defined her youth. A child of the 1960’s, Kate recalls being both attracted to yet cautious of the freedoms often associated with the era, particularly with respect to love, and as she moves through her life in the hear and now, her quest to find Peggy develops, in large part, into an effort to come to terms with her mixed feelings about the past.

    In a sense, Thirty Miles to Rosebud, is a complex coming of age novel, or a novel that complicates our understanding of what it means to come of age. Or, to put it another way, it’s novel that insists on every page that we’re always coming of age, and that the past is always prologue. We are both creatures of time and creatures of our time, Henning reminds us throughout the novel–but what we do with the time we have is what ultimately defines us.

    Conversations with Harryette Mullen

    Below is an intro to a 50 page interview with Harryette Mullen. Sections of the interview are available or will soon be available in the magazines listed below.

    With Harryette Mullen’s dense, layered and playful poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary, there is often a subtle question, almost present but not quite present, a riddle-like structure that leaves the reader wondering: How did she make this poem? As a prep for an MFA course I was teaching at Long Island University in the summer of 2009, and as a project I knew I would enjoy working on later, I decided to ask Harryette if she would be willing to talk to me about each of the poems in this collection, and then I would share sections of the interview with the class. This interview would be in the spirit of the Oulipo artists who reveal their experiments and constraints and catalogue them in their library in Paris. No secret mysterious inspired “writer-self,” but instead a writer who is seriously inventive and willing to share her methods and approaches. It was very curious and enlightening to the students to discuss and then hear some of the writer’s intentions, context, and the way she had constructed the poems. We of course weren’t searching for meaning, but instead aiming to help writers expand their own repertoire of tools for writing and to think about the reasons writers write the way they do.

    For the most part, this interview follows Harryette’s alphabetical structure for Sleeping with the Dictionary. Sections are available or forthcoming in The Poetry Project Newsletter Feb/Mar 10 #222(E-M), Sonora Review (R-S), and the online journals, Eoagh (B-D), Not Enough Night (A-B) and Jacket Magazine (S-Z).

    Links (I’ll update these as available):

    Sonora Review Blog until the print version is available

    E to M republished on the How2 Blog