New work workshop — in progress, slow slow progress

Hey all—this morning was my first new work workshop. We wrote to prompts, twenty minutes per topic, then hauled everything to our rooms. Tomorrow we are to appear with a somewhat finished project. I’m working on the first prompt, a 12 line poem, with four lines in meter of some kind, that combines a dream image we discussed (for me, flying) with one real but dream-like experience (for me, snorkeling along when a bull sea lion came swimming up along me). I’ll be rewriting this thing all night. If you want to see how this does or doesn’t happen, tune in. And chime in, as I’d love your thoughts.

The Sea Lion Bull draft 2

Flying is only a matter of matter
released from gravity’s predisposition.
Who was that creature, single common ancestor
of condor and whale? How did its astounding bulk
float? Was gravity less in Earth’s youth, all levity
and play before the weight of battleships
and bombers conquered conviction?

At 44, a balanced age, a huge pale sausage
in neoprene casing, flying through warm wet teal
when all lithe ton of him shadowed me, neither
food nor threat. Peering, appeasing curiosity
then diving to where I could not follow.


The Sea Lion Bull
draft 3

Flying is only a matter of matter
released from gravity’s predisposition.
I dream a common ancestor of condor
and whale, its astounding bulk floating
grace. Gravity was less in Earth’s
youth, all levity before the weight
of battleships and bombers conquered conviction.

At 44, a balanced age, a huge pale sausage
in neoprene casing, flying through warm wet teal
when all lithe ton of him shadowed me, neither
food nor threat. Peering, appeasing curiosity
then diving to where I could not follow.


The Sea Lion Bull
draft 4

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
Dreaming a common ancestor of condor
human, and whale, astounding bulk, floating grace
Gravity in Earth’s youth was less
all levity and play before the weight
of battleships and bombers civilized conviction

No longer young, a huge pale sausage in neoprene casing,
soaring via warm wet aqua, his lithe ton shadows me, muscles
frozen rubber—how prey feels—yet I want him to embrace me, dare
the bulk of that body against mine I roll an awkward turn to him
He dives to where I cannot follow


The Sea Lion Bull
draft 5

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
dreaming a common ancestor of condor
human, and whale, such astounding bulk, floating
grace in gravity was less in Earth’s youth
levity the law before the weight of
battleships and bombers civilized conviction.

Not close to young, an immense pale sausage in neoprene casing,
soaring in warm aqua, his lithe ton shadows me, muscles frozen
rubber—how prey feels—still I want him to embrace me, feel the mass
of that body against this mammal flesh. I reach my unwebbed fingers to him.
He dives to where I cannot follow.


damn, here it is, 12:50 a.m., me desperate for sleep, when another rewrite forced me back to the page and keyboard.

The Sea Lion Bull
draft 6

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
a dream of a common ancestor of condor
human, and whale, astounding bulk, floating
grace—gravity was less in Earth’s youth
levity the law before the weight of
battleships and bombers slaughtered supposition.

Not close to young, an immense pale sausage in neoprene casing,
soaring in warm aqua, shadowed by a black, lithe ton, muscles frozen
rubber—how prey feels—yet this mammal flesh considers the mass of his body,
yearns for some ancestral embrace. I reach my unwebbed fingers to him.
He dives to where I cannot follow.


The Bull Sea Lion
draft 8

Flying is only a matter of matter
set free from gravity’s predisposition
a dream of a common ancestor of condor,
human, and whale, astounding bulk, floating
grace—gravity was less in Earth’s youth
levity the law before the weight of
battleships and bombers slaughtered presumption

Not close to young, a selchie in her neoprene skin, soaring
in warm aqua, shadowed by a black, lithe ton,
muscles frozen rubber—how prey feels—
yet this mammal flesh considers the mass of his body,
yearns for some ancestral embrace

I reach my unwebbed fingers to him

He dives to where I cannot follow

The Pale Sausage in Neoprene Casing

The Pale Sausage in Neoprene Casing


how poems come

how poems come
Elliott batTzedek

For myself, a poem emerges by itself, like something developing in a dark place.
Fanny Howe, “Bewilderment”

someone has taken a photo, photos, has not wound the film forward all the way, or too far, imprinting overlapping, underlapping, multiple exposures, images piling up, separated, blank space blank space blank space normal human turned devil-eyed by the flash

someone has taken photos and handed me the camera

i studied photography for two months in high school, which was a long time ago or maybe never but i take the camera and go into the dark room

dark has a smell and it is chemical and acrid and wet and anticipation and frustration and elation and oh the sorrow of the lost century that digital has no dark and no dark smell

that i go into because someone has handed me the camera. i have some experience and some control and some likelihood and no patience none at all so maybe they took a great photo, maybe it was the best photo ever taken and if so, why the fuck did they trust the film to me? i’m just a poet and seeing my life so far i wouldn’t trust me with a great truth because the image is only as good as the filter and, honestly, i suck as a screen, i like to live with all the doors and windows open and dirty laundry hanging everywhere

because washing clothes is not a priority, i’d rather be in the dark

where much to my surprise, and with my gratitude or my unwarranted and unlicensed and gossamer cock-sure arrogance, a real stunner comes out of that liquid bath from time to time. Shadow and light, time and eternity, detail and universe, I and thou, word and sound, so balanced that just for a flash unbalanced ceases to be possible.

“You must have shadow and light source both, listen, listen.” Damn mystics, damn poets, damn darkness that i want more than i want anything because hunkering down and bending over and peering through the wet veil while praying one sharp image will develop is the most devotion-like motion in my muscles’ memory.

Give me the camera, give me the damn camera already, i can promise you nothing but oh

oh how i will serve you if you just keep the cameras coming

Ciscernos “You Like to Give and…”

one of my sister-poets was reading a collection of erotic/love poems by Sandra Ciscernos. I opened it and found this. And another I really loved that was just too long to copy out by hand. I gotta go buy the book now to have it for myself. The Spanish words should have accent marks I’ve not yet learned enough HTML to create. Soon, really.

You Like to Give and Watch Me My Pleasure
Sandra Ciscernos

You like to give and watch me my
pleasure. Machete me in two.
Take for the taking what is yours.
This is how you like to have me.

I’m as naked as a field of cane,
as alone as all of Cuba
before you.

You could descend like rain
destroy like fire
if you chose to.

If you chose to,

I could rise like hurracan.
I could erupt as sudden as
a coup d’etat of trumpets,
the sleepless eye of ocean,
a sky of black urracas.
If I chose to.

I don’t choose to.
I let myself be taken.

The power is my gift to you.

Drew Second Residency Lyric in Times of Extinction

Fairly random notes from a lecture by program director, and astounding poet, Annemarie Macari.

She was discussing poems of resistance and re-imagination by Elizabeth Alexander, Mark Doty, and Theodore Roethke, so a lot of the experience doesn’t really translate into notes. This is my remembered, and jotted down, flavor of what mattered most to me in the afternoon.

Annemarie started out by discussing all types of extinction we are facing, and one of her concerns as a poet and human, the extinction of the divine feminine and the huge costs that has had, most of which we no longer aware. I add to that list the number of languages that are going extinct, and all the knowledge those languages encoded that will now be lost to us as they are replaced by global languages which encode capitalism and colonialism. I’ve been thinking about this a lot after a discussion with my co-poet Kim, who is Mohawk, about her attempt to start a poetry journal in Mohawk only to get no submissions. None, because Mohawk poets are writing in English or French.

“When we got to our real poems,” Annemarie said, “after a long apprenticeship, these poems, the only poems we can write, also write us. We are what we write, we are our language. We must, as poets, live as if language were matter and mattered.” This, in contrast to the insane, techno-device driven world we inhabit, where, she said, “we are being distracted by distraction from distraction.”

Lyric poetry is enactment of mystery. Metaphor is not just a poetic device, it is ultimate thought, the way the human mind moves forward by connecting two things and seeing how they are similar, it is the source of all new insight. It is “instinctual groping,” a phrase I first learned from Annemarie in January and have been using to describe my own movement towards unspeakable mystery ever since.

Later, discussing Mark Doty’s “Homo Will Not Inherit,” she said, “Never to get lost is never to live. To be always sure of where you are is very dangerous for a poet.” Very reassuring for me, of course, as I find myself in a world where I don’t know how I will continue to make a living, who or how I will love, where I will live, or what my life might be in 5 years. Poetry, I know, is how I’m going to go on making a life, all else is as open as a broken store front, raided for clean water after a flood.

“I am not interested in transcendence,” Annemarie said, citing the close of Doty’s poem:

…This failing city’s
radiant as any we’ll ever know,
paved with oily rainbow, charred gates

jeweled with tags, swoops of letters
over letters, indecipherable as anything
written by desire. I’m not ashamed

to love Babylon’s scrawl. How could I be?
It’s written on my face as much as on
these walls. This city’s inescapable,

gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.

Yeah. My notes, scrawled on the edge, about this and my own life: “Once I’m in this space, I want to write and think and then fuck, and then write more and more. How do I set up that life?”

How indeed.

Drew, Second Residency, Translation

More and more and more thinking about translating poetry, the impossibility and necessity of it. These are rough notes as I’m gathering them; when it all jells into something more solid (solid-ish?) I’ll post that too.

Notes from a lecture by Mihaela Moscaliue: “Translation: Poetics and Politics, Theory and Practice”

A.Burgess—Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.

F. Schleiermacher—The best translator is one who is never fully at home in the foreign language, and seeks to evoke in the reader an experience like his [sic] own, that is, the experience of someone for whom the foreighn language is simultaneously legible and alien.

K. Mattawa—A translator’s job is to provide a dancing partner for the original poem

J.L.Borges—Translations are a partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers.

G.Borrow—Translation is at best an echo.

Seamus Heaney described two different approaches to translating, based on how Vikings treated Ireland and England:
—raiding, where poets go in and raid other cultures and languages and take all the booty they can, such as Lowell’s “imitations” which take and own and change at will
—settlement, in which you enter and colonize, but also stay, allowing yourself to be changed by the conquered culture even as you impose change on it

We don’t have a clear language to description translation its various forms. Faithful, literary, free, approximate, literal, formal, informal, intralingual, intersemiotic, intersystemic, transtexualization, transillumination, transformation, transmigration, transplantation, and on and on. German has three different words for three distinct concepts: umdichtun (a poem modeled on another); nachdichtung (free translation); ubersetzung (translation).

What does one translate in a poem? It’s content? It’s type of vocabulary (formal, literary, slang)? It’s music, sound patterns, rhyme? When I was still working with children’s books, I got an order once for “classic alphabet books translated into Spanish.” Big sigh, then a long explanation of how Spanish and English are not the same alphabet, so there is no such thing as an English alphabet book “translated” into Spanish, with the suggestion that I buy them some SPANISH alphabet books.

“A translation is never a duplicate, but a seduction, a precise awareness that there is no finished, complete translation.”

“Poetry may be untranslatable, yet wants itself to be translated.”

“Translation is an intensification of the writing process.”

“Translators are not ventriloquists for the original writers.”

“A translator is a lover made better by unfaithfulness, by what is learned when rules are broken and experiments are done.”

Robert Haas: “recalcitrant strangeness and accuracy” (said about some translation he was doing from a Polish poem of a French concept that doesn’t exist in English, but I simply love the phrase itself)

From Jean Valentine’s talk on her work translating Maria Tsvetaeva

Jean Valentine: translating is a certain kind of chaos

from a translation of a 1929 Tsvetaeva essay on Rilke:

And today I want Rilke to speak—through me. In the vernacular, this is known as translation. (How much better the Germans put it—nachdicten: Following in the poet’s path, paving anew the entire road which he paved. For let nach be—(to follow after), but—dichten: is that which is always anew.) Nachdicten—to pave anew the road along instantaneously vanishing traces. But translation has another meaning. To translate not only into (the Russian language, for example), but also across (a river). I translate Rilke into the Russian tongue, as he will some day translate me to the other world.
By the hand—across the river

from Peter Cole’s talk “Risks and Rewards of Translation”

Peter Cole began by describing his own slow movement towards translating (for which, fyi, he has won a Macarthur Genius Award). He said that initially he was taught, and had the sense, that translation was a threat to him as a young poet, that it was an inhibitor to development of poetic voice. He also described the effect of reading most translations, ground out of “the great gray zone of the homogenized” from which all poems came out sounding the same, a kind of translation-ese which was not really any language at all. But his own writing and life pulled him toward the Hebrew bible, and a decision to learn Hebrew as an American poet.

Translation, he said, is the source of deep discomfort for everyone involved in it. It is an ongoing series of crises. Bialyk, he said, described translations as kissing through a veil, adding, though, that such a kiss is a way to get started. Other descriptions of translating he has encountered:
-chicory for coffee
-counterfeit currency
-like looking at a tapestry from the wrong side
-reproduction vs. procreation
-colonialist appropriation
-adultery, desecration, related for the Italian term for translate which grows from the root for traitor or betrayal
-“poetry is what is lost in translation” Robert Frost
-voice envy
-“the spirit that creates prosody dies in translation; you cannot translate the intimacies of sound form; the body’s pleasures will not translate” Donald Hall

So then why translate when translating is impossible? Because, Cole said, all poems seem impossible before they are written. Translation is the art of approximation, but so is poetry itself. Every poem is an imitation of nature; every poem, no matter how great, is leaving something out. Great poetry may be exactly what is present in translation.

The function of art is estrangement, to make the familiar new, Cole said, describing how his encounter with learning Hebrew made English seem utterly new.

In response to Hall’s assertion that the primary pleasure of poetry is in the mouth, that the forming of sounds is an early erotic experience, Cole asserted that translations make sense and make sense—how they make real the sensory dimension of the poem. In translating, you feel the poem as a sensual, verbal object that immerses you in a world that is utterly sensual. Nothing is better for a poet, nothing can expand and realign the poetic muscle as translation of poets you respect and love. The engagement changes your poetic anatomy, remakes you.

Translating also effects us on the aesthetic and moral levels, for when you seek to do justice to work you respect, you are driven to know, to learn, to take action in the world.

Gershem Sholem—translation is one of the greatest miracles, bringing us into the heart of the sacred order from which it springs.

So how then can we understand translation from this perspective? Cole offered a stunning list of possibilities:
-akin to musical transposition, changing the same work to a different key
-restoration of a painting
-erotic sexual congress, sensual dance
-redemption of lost poetry
-opening a window, breaking a shell, removing a veil, removing a well cover
-moving across
-like shrines taken from one holy place to a new holy place in order to consecrate the new place
-poetry, since all poetry is translation

Abraham Cowley: I am not so enamored of the name of translator that I don’t with for something better, though I don’t know what that should be called.

And also, from Peter Cole, a few dangers of translating to avoid:
-translating is the extraordinary nourishment of oxygen, but could end up suffocating the poet
-the translator could become only a technician
-psychological release could go awry; translation is a kind of fiction, always trying on other lives, but you could get trapped in the delusion that these lives are your own
-the intense and complicated pleasure and texture of translating could make the poet’s own voice extinct

Drew, Second Residency, Second Morning

Up early, reading poems for this morning’s workshop, writing comments and comments and comments. Heard an interesting talk about structure yesterday (more on that soon), which, like all new interesting information, changes how I ask questions, so now I’m all about “has the poem convinced me that it has the authority to make me trust its assertions?”

Hmmm, I’m thinking that, with other nouns, or pronouns, substituted for “the poem,” this could be a most valuable questions in all manner of interesting and vital ways.

We got our mentors yesterday. I’ll be working with Ross Gay, who as poet does amazing combinations of sound and sense and as a lecturer says many very smart things. My “Briar Rose” sonnet came out of his New Work Workshop last January, because he asked good questions and gave an interesting prompt.

Today’s schedule — workshop in the morning (crap, I gotta get off of the computer and into the shower soon!!), then a lunch meeting with another poet to talk about a panel at a conference, then a meeting with my mentor, then a lecture on “Some Questions Regarding the Function of Syntax”, then another lecture on “Lyric Impulse in the Time of Extinction,” then dinner, then readings by Joan Larkin and Ira Sadoff, and somewhere in between I have to start in on reading and commenting on poems for tomorrow’s workshop.

In workshop this morning, my poem is my ghazal “My Golden Thing.” (The version here is old, I’ll update it soon). That kind of very structured form is new to me, so we’ll see how that goes.

It’s a damn good thing I’m an intensity slut, and I am here with my people, or I’d be exhausted already.

Drew Second Residency, First Day

Tuesday, June 23rd, early morning at Drew, waiting for coffee to brew…

It’s really good to be back here, although, in that weird dorm/campus way, only the color of the grass and trees have changed. I could take a picture of my room this time around, or I could repost the picture from January and no one would ever know. Seeing everyone again is really good, and I can’t wait to dive into the writing workshops. Last night was the colloquium, in which each faculty member shares a poem they love and some thoughts about it. They pretend this is for us, but they are so into each other, reaching over to grab books and write down names and look at notes. That’s so great to witness though—these lives lived in poetry.

The Mundane

I remembered everything I needed except my ethernet cable. Joy. I tried fighting with the wireless system, then hauled my jittery, email-deprived myself to the store for a new cable. Ahhhhhhh. Although an email I’m hoping for hasn’t come through yet, it was still good to be able to check obsessively.

The Profound

I’d known since this spring that one of the other poets had been in an accident, but only know found out how serious. Although she was revived, she died on the way to the hospital, and, although it was reattached, she lost a hand. And she’s here, and she’s HERE, because the poetry matters so much that one just does it. And because the poetry is consolation and healing and a nonnegotiable necessity.

Which makes my sad little heartbreak seem nearly inconsequential. Except last night, when I was here alone with no sweetie to call to exchange sweet “good nights.” I did have a whole new pile of poems by my poets to read, and that’s nearly the same thing, and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The Minutiae

Forced myself up and onto my bike early this morning, because I hauled the thing all the way here. I won’t say how far I rode, although it was farther than all last summer combined, after a knee injury in May. And I won’t say how long it took me. I will say that my knee was killing me, but improved greatly after I raised my seat a half inch. Tomorrow, farther and maybe a little faster. Maybe. It is certainly a lot easier to ride when I can take off from the dorm door and not have to load the bike and drive it somewhere, and when there just isn’t traffic so I don’t have to worry about being hit every few minutes.

Today at 2:30 I find out who my mentor will be this semester and get my workshop schedule. What ho, here we go…

Here’s what I’ll be doing over the next two weeks…

2nd residency starts June 22nd. Can’t wait—need me some poetry fix NOW.

Faculty Talks:

Peter Cole—The Poet as Translator, The Translator as Poet

Lynn Emanuel—Architecture for Books of Poems
A (theoretical) consideration of the manuscript’s absent presence in writing workshop. This talk is not a “How To.” By examining the way several very different writers have structured books and long poetic sequences, we will examine the way we think (or don’t think) about metaphors for building a manuscript.

Ross Gay—Some Questions Regarding the Function of Syntax

Among the elements of a poem that have the ability to transfix and transform (diction, music, narrative, etc.) syntax seems often to be overlooked. But it is there, plain as day, in nearly every poem we remember—a perfectly wrought syntax. In this talk we will think about the ways syntax works in the work of Carl Phillips, Lucille Clifton, and Robert Creeley (among others), in the effort of understanding how we might more actively and astutely wrangle our own language into poems.

Aracelis Girmay—Methods of Descent
In this talk we will do a close reading of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Boy Died in My Alley” & Nazim Hikmet’s “I Made a Journey” (tr. Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk). Both of the poems are shape-shifters. Built to transform. Built to make us lose & find our place as we descend the page further into the poem’s meaning. We will explore the ways that line, repetition, landscape, possibility (“or”), & *contra*diction* push us to descend toward the final revelatory moments of the poems.

James Haba—The Unspeakable

The Unspeakable inevitably involves the unhearable. That which is too painful to speak of is also that which is too painful to hear. But we must proceed with caution when approaching pain: What actually causes us most pain? Perhaps we experience most pain in giving up the familiar, the assumed—what has up till this point passed as reality. A huge topic and little time. We will focus on T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and consider more briefly Taha Muhammad Ali’s “Revenge.” With luck we may also be able to glance at what we could also learn from The Bhagavad Gita. What do we have to lose?

Joan Larkin—“Pitched Past Pitch of Grief”: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Terrible Sonnets
This talk will focus on the small group of Hopkins 1885 poems call “the terrible sonnets” or “sonnets of despair.” Hopkins wrote to Robert Bridges about one of these poems (most likely the one beginning “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee”) that it was “written in blood.” We’ll look at how Hopkins’ wild music compels our attention—somehow, despite the expression of anguish, evoking joy.

Anne Marie Macari—Lyric Impulse in the Time of Extinction
Even in times of dire events—personal, social, or global—poets have unending faith in language and the metaphoric experience. We write, not as an escape, but as exploration, as discovery, and for solace. We write to take the leap from what we know (or think we know) into the unknown (metaphor). We will look at Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Dream I Told My Mother-in-law,” as well as work by Mark Doty, Nazim Hiket, and Theodore Roethke’s “The Lost Son,” as time allows.

Mihaela Moscaliuc—Translation: Poetics and Politics, Theory and Practice

We will discuss some of the pleasures, frustrations, and betrayals that accompany the act of translation, introduce some approaches to the process, and outline current trends in translation studies. Using examples from Romanian poetry written under communism and in its aftermath, I will underscore the importance of historical contextualization in the process of negotiating meaning.

Alicia Ostriker—Judy Grahn: Radical Vision, Formal Experiment
Judy Grahn (b. 1940) Oakland, Ca. activist founder of the Women’s Press Collective in the ‘70’s (i.e., same time as Harvey Milk), foremother of gay and lesbian movements and women’s spirituality movements, tours with Ani de Franco, etc. Grahn is the author of “The Common Woman Poems,” “A Woman is Talking to Death,” and “She Who,” among many other works. As a poet who fuses political and spiritual vision, and is incessantly experimental formallym, she can be compared with poets like Blake and Ginsberg. I want to look at what she does with language and rhythm in some of her most important work, ranging from the colloquial to rant and incantation.

Ira Sadoff—Structure: Strategies for Revision

Inexperienced writers sometimes think of revision as polishing surfaces, as making the poem look and sound good, like a new outfit. Structural revision, on the other hand, looks at a draft of the poem as a sculptural process. We’ll pay attention to detail selection, precedence in music and voice, seizing on and advancing impulse, what might be called a loose rendition of organic unity. We’ll also consider how to cut the decorative, rhetorical or narrative explanation. Some examples will include Charles Simic’s “The Partial Explanation,” Larry Levis’ “To a Wall of Flame,” Louise Gluck’s “Brenende Liebe,” and Billie Holiday’s, “Good Morning Heartache.”

Carey Salerno & Jonathan Thirkield—Life After the MFA
A conversation about writing and getting a first book published by two authors with new books. Bring your questions!

Gerald Stern—Interview
Students will come to the residency having read Stern’s American Sonnets. They should be prepared to interview him as a group about his book and his writing life.

Jean Valentine—Working With Tsvetaeva
This talk will look at some translations I am working on (with the Russian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky) of the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva whose poems are thought to be some of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, but who has yet to come to us in translations that capture her poems’ vision, depth, and beauty. This will be a practical conversation about Tsvetaeva and the process of translating her. The students will be encouraged to engage with the unfinished translations as we look for solutions together.

Michael Waters—The Erotic Imagination
Not what you think. “Aesthetic emotion puts man in a state favorable to the reception of erotic emotion…Art is the accomplice of love. Take love away and there is no longer art,” wrote Remy de Gourmont. Adelia Prado is more succinct: “it’s the soul that’s erotic.” In literature, eroticism—its yearning and anticipation—may be viewed as a style, one that subverts both traditional Romantic idealism and cool postmodern intellectualism. We may discuss works from the Bible and by Emily Dickinson, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Paul Blackburn, James Dickey, Audre Lorde, and Alice Notley.

a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in the schools?

Annie Get Your Gun
Fifth in a series of eight manifestos.

by D.A. Powell

The thing about sardines when you buy them in a can: they are fairly uniform in size and in flavor; their individual identities have disappeared into the general fishiness of the soybean oil; their little bones have melted; their flesh has become a mass grave; they are fairly cheap and fairly consumable; and one forgets a sardine quickly after one has partaken of it.

But damn: don’t some people just love sardines? They’re convenient; they take no preparation time whatsoever; and, though a steady diet of them would probably be unhealthy in the long run, they are—in the short term—a pretty safe snack. They’re snacky. They aren’t lox, but they aren’t cat food. They are the middle of an ocean swimming with possibilities.

Sardines school. Yet, despite their defensive strategy of hiding behind one another, millions of them get eaten. All that schooling does them nary a whit of good. And yet, they still join, instinctually, each one believing that it’s some other poor pilchard who’ll be devoured.

I don’t know that artists and poets join schools for quite the same reason that sardines do. Sometimes there’s a true innovator in the bunch, sometimes they really do share some common misunderstandings about aesthetics, sometimes it just so happens that a bunch of really interesting people all shop at the same hat shop and they start to hang out and resemble one another and make little sandwiches. It can seem quite seductive to be associated with a school. Or to have a school from which one insistently distances oneself. Or even to found a school. But most of what makes a school truly interesting is what others say about it; not what it says about itself.

Is it the nature of beings to coalesce? I think sometimes that artists, like other lower forms of intelligence, want to “belong.” Or rather, that they want to not belong in some similar ways. They want to belong to the outside, and yet to be recognized by the inside. It’s a conundrum. Because, really, in order to belong to a school or a movement or a gang or a pod, you have to—whether you’re willing to think about it this way or not—move towards a “center.”

Maybe it’s peculiar to our time, in which actual schools (academies) proliferate and spawn, that we’re seeing so much centrism. What we need is more eccentrism. Who isn’t tired of the contemporary qua contemporary? Who isn’t bored by innovation for innovation’s sake? It has, sadly, become the mode du jour. Not even a school. A monocultural fish farm. An orchestra in which everyone is trying to solo at the same time. A tin of silvery bodies falling into place. I imagine that each of those fish must have thought it was going in a new direction. But all the other fishes got there at exactly the same time, and thus the great net encompassed them all.

Look, I like sardines. I probably like them better than most. But the time will come when all we have of the mighty oceans is canned fish. That’s the doomsayer in me. Shouldn’t there at least be a chance that I am wrong? Shouldn’t there be a greater variety of life, a greater variety of art, a greater variety of poetry than what gathers in the schools trying oh so hard to appear larger and more menacing than it is? Write a manifesto. Don’t you see that it’s too small to keep? Throw it back.