While we were away last month we missed the first postings of Bill Berkson’s blog at Harriet. It strikes us as ironic that at the time we were actually passing through San Francisco but were unable to check in with him, much to our regret. But Berkson’s heartening online observations about implicit collaboration resonated with us. Certainly the affirming presence of Berkson himself has been a lodestar for many poets and artists besides ourselves. (As just one example, no one who’s picked up the MOMA In Memory of My Feelings hasn’t been deeply affected by the extraordinary postscript to that volume.) But it’s painful how often we miss things. Part of the problem, we point out in our defense, is the surfeit of voices and images to which we now have access. We fear we are growing inured to the subtle and the genuine. Even here we perceive ourselves falling into the habit of excessive self-recording -- “journaling” as some have put it. Berkson (in a very atypical curmudgeon mode) quotes O’Hara himself complaining about the redundant “all-too-circumstantial” poems out there. But even though we find ourselves worn down, we’re nevertheless reinvigorated when someone like Berkson points us toward work with which we might not yet be familiar. We’re also grateful for his reminders about “word-and-image amplitude” and how interactions with poems and paintings really do serve to enrich (as Brecht puts it) each “person’s capacity for experience.”
Catching up on the month’s magazines, we note that the “Deep Thoughts” essay in the April 14 NYT magazine marked a new low in poetic commentary. It’s not just that we found the piece’s closing proposal of “what the best poetry does” incredibly depressing. It’s not simply that we disagree with its author on matters of taste; there’s no reason to make the rather obvious point here that some readers are not satisfied by “personal” poems of “hyacinths and biscuits.” But due to the essay’s shifting modes of sincerity and sarcasm, it’s not clear to us whether the essay’s thesis -- proposing Jack Handey’s satire as a model for contemporary poetry workshops -- was being made in all seriousness or retro jest. In any case, we couldn’t get ourselves to laugh. (We almost regretted we’d given up recreational drugs, remembering the happy stoned hilarity with which we originally greeted Handey’s midnight offerings on SNL.) What bothered us most -- in addition to all this aesthetic muddle -- was the the author’s casual reference (with the dismissive wave of one hand) to “an elite Modernist tradition that doesn’t much care if it attracts a wide audience.” This implied conflation of popularity and democratic impulses (a fatally flawed received idea if there ever was one) is especially troubling, since we continue to take seriously the idea that the poet may be, indeed, “the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” We think poetry (even, or perhaps especially, humorous verse) can and should deal with ideas, particularly when it comes to issues of social justice. The whole misunderstanding about “elitism” stems from willful ignorance of the historical fact that the very concept of democracy did not start out as a “popular” idea. Nor was Spinoza’s “radical equality” met with widespread enthusiasm. The abolition of slavery and the American woman’s right to vote were both hard sells, pushed and shoved into law in large part by a coterie of New England beanheads. Italian Fascism, on the other hand, successfully managed to gain the people’s support. Analogously, the artist has to realize that her position to society may well be one of marginality and cultural resistance. It’s not that she doesn’t care about the size of her audience; it’s that she has to accept that her work may not be widely appreciated, taking, as it may have to, a discomfiting approach or position. That “elitist” poet Dante Alighieri did something truly revolutionary by writing in the Italian vernacular (an act nearly as momentous as the invention of the printing press or the translation and widespread transmission of scripture) even while some of his religious and political beliefs do not correspond to our own conceptions about democracy. Fortunately the crucial relation between the imagination and the future of liberal societies will continue to be the work of (some) poets, those who aspire to the creation of poems that do more than “access something honest and eye-opening by way of surprise.”
Up now for a few weeks at the Calliope Reading Series website (and therefore repeated ad infinitum through search engines) is notice of Mary Maxwell’s poetry reading on April 21 in West Falmouth. Though by now it’s already taken place, the occasion continues to live on in our age’s electronic version of aboriginal dreamtime. Several publication notices of Mary Maxwell’s poetry books have also been posted in print and online in recent weeks -- in the Author’s Guild newsletter, among Arion’s books received, at the Bryn Mawr alumni website. Such announcements give a certain officialness to the poet’s presence. The "person" has become a Googled name, a face thumbed up or down on Facebook, the title of a Wikipedia entry, or an entity of letters repeated over and over through HTML code. Following Kenny Goldsmith’s axiom, “If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist,” postings of an event or publication have become more real or “meaningful” than any actual reading or work presented. Literally and figuratively, at this historical moment not only is there a constant open mic, it has become heresy to suggest that this may not be a good thing. Because everyone is composing (or more exactly, "patchwriting" and "appropriating") their own poems, few are really listening to anyone else; they are too busy waiting for their turn to express themselves. In the current cultural environment, it’s very hard for the solitary poet to hear her own voice, let alone continue to have faith in the existence of any such presupposition. “Get on board! Get on board The Poetry Train!” our laptop calls from the inbox and linked sites of Poetry Foundation, Poetry Society of America, Academy of American Poets, Mass Poetry Festival, PEN, Poets & Writers, Poetry Project, PennSound, etc. etc. We prefer not to, as Bartleby would say, even though we acknowledge that if we don’t go along for the ride, it shall well be as though we were never here in the first place.
We were sorry to be out of town for this past Friday’s FAWC/Acme Fine Arts fundraiser in Boston. We first met the Work Center’s new director Michael Roberts years ago at a PEN event years ago in NYC and were happy to be reintroduced to him in Provincetown this last winter. Online images from the “Interiors” Acme show especially appealed to us, concerned as we have been for some time with the idea of the studio interior as a projection of an artist’s concerns, both formal and social. In relation to the painting of Serena Rothstein, we naturally thought of the 1957 “Blue Studio” cover image of the catalogue, Discourse in Paint, published in conjunction with Rothstein’s 2008 PAAM show. The Acme show’s interest in “how the introduction of the figure (portrait or self-portrait) animates the interior” equally applies to Rothstein’s studio self-portraits. As Mary Maxwell observed in Discourse in Paint, “A recurring subject in Rothstein’s work beginning in 1955, her Paris atelier can be viewed not only as a source of identity and security but also a sort of stand-in for the working self.” “If the motif of the studio functions as a kind of projected interior landscape,” Maxwell continued, “then a related (and correspondingly recurring) thematic in Rothstein would be the self-portrait.”
On a recent tour of colleges, we found ourselves visiting the Princeton and Bard art museums on consecutive days. We joked that the two institutions could be viewed as educational opposites on several levels. Yet in both art collections there were things we loved as well as things we hated. At Princeton we were entranced by “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” and horrified by the parade of capitalist, patriarchal elders ensconsed in the adjoining main hall. But then again, there were those incredible Soutines we’d only seen in reproduction and the excellent “1913: The Year of Modernism.” At Bard curatorship took priority over creation, and though we fully appreciate the idea of meaning created by collection, contextualization and juxtaposition, much of the jargon-larded commentary accompanying the exhibitions matched the Princeton portraits in their self-satisfied pomposity. (It made us appreciate anew the curating behind the “Inventing Abstraction” show we visited over the winter at MOMA.) Despite moving moments at both university collections, there was something depressing about these paired experiences. We used to find ourselves most at home in art museums of all sizes and varieties, but neither of these institutional contexts made us terribly comfortable.
Though there’s no substitute for live dance, there are certain films that give a perspective traditional stage productions can’t. Wim Wender’s Pina, for example, which we’ve been watching with more than a little fascination on DVD, shows us things we completely missed when we first saw Bausch’s choreography thirty years ago seated way up high in the rafters of BAM. Book encounters about dance can also be great experiences. Errata Editions’ reprint of Alexey Brodovitch’s 1945 Ballet photographs (with text by Edwin Denby) is a breathtaking experience (and it’s only one title of their admirable Books on Books series). Speaking of these photographic images of a particular moment of Franco-Russian dance, Denby observes: “What strikes me about the many anonymous dancers, as I turn the pages, is the natural look they have in action. They look spontaneously absorbed in their moves as those brightly leaping and darting basketball players whom you see on a sports page ... They are as natural and animated as a crowd of boys and girls coming jabbering out of high school or crossing Times Square at dusk.” One of our favorite collections of dance writing is Robert Gottlieb’s eccentric anthology, Reading Dance, which contains reviews, interviews, recollections and even recipes (Sir Frederick Ashton’s Kedgeree), though most particularly a dialogue between Denby and Jerome Robbins. In a related vein, in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook will be found “Masculine Dance and the Movie Musical.” This interview replicates something of the ballet-goer’s excited lobby conversation, full of passionate responses to things such as West Side Story, fierce opinions that to our ears echo Denby’s Brodovitch observations of seventy years ago: “Cross a poet and an athlete and you get a dancer. There is no art form that requires more physical effort, both in preparation and performance. The psychic cost of great poetry is roughly commensurate with the endured pain of the professional dancer.”
Though spring comes late to Longnook hollow, after a last snowfall it’s finally arrived with imminently blooming hyacinths and the appearance of the first jonquils’ tubular stems. The air smells different; it could even be said to have its own earthy green perfume. We are reminded of some of the aromatic subtleties of “The Art of Scent” exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design this past winter in NYC, with its elegantly curated fragrances blended by “olfactory artists.” The transcription of taste and smell into words is one of the great literary challenges. Bu no one had a better “nose” (or “eye” for that matter) than the great Colette. From “Colette’s Cut Flowers” in the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, here is a translation of the writer’s seasonally apt description of the daffodil known in French as the “Grande Jeannette”: Her entire corolla is a sturdy snare for fragrance made innocent by those efficacious rans which the cold defeats but that the sun of March reawakens.
Jed Perl’s Magicians & Charlatans is extraordinarily solid in both form and content. Essay collections often have a vaguely “pre-owned” quality, so that magazine writing’s second round can read like a set of hand-me-downs. But not this book. Its essays were constructed like a fleet of working boats, some as elegant as a fitted yacht, others as sturdily effective as a trawler. Instead of once-admirable vessels now permanently docked in the port of book publication, these stimulating pieces continue to do the apparently thankless task of cultural criticism. Every page has a phrase worth quoting, though Perl’s review of Martin Duberman’s biography of Lincoln Kirstein and his “crankily Mandarin love affair with the twentieth century” is especially packed with apt sentences. Such an observation might make Perl’s excellence sound like it’s a matter of mere style. But in fact, his verbal facility stems not only from an almost painfully sensitive understanding of art, but from an informed awareness of the inner and outer life from which great works are generated. His valuations are never without justification. We can certainly see why Perl’s book has not been widely reviewed: What critic’s observations could rise to the quality of the work under discussion? Eakins Press has matched Perl’s elegant prose with a sublimely devised, paving-stone-weight volume. Its design and typography are credited to Howard Gralla. We never would have guessed that the color of an ampersand could carry so much meaning.
In the world of academic publication there is a very specific legal term for the use of another person’s research without attribution. And though it can be infuriating to see the appropriation of lesser-known literary authors (either a work’s subject or its formal approaches) passed off as “original” creation, when such a thing does occur, any sincere practitioner will try to remain as liberal as possible in order to allow for art’s open exchange -- which in the ideal is always something of a communal give-and-take. But a slightly different (and considerably more troubling) kind of authorial suppression can also occur, a phenomenon the art critic Mira Schor has identified as “whitelisting,” A “whitelist” cannot be composed by one person (such unattributed appropriation would constitute an act of traditional plagiarism); instead it happens when someone’s published work is used in shared discourse but no collective of professional “colleagues” makes direct acknowledgement of that person or the significance of her work. This suppression of the proper name (which may admittedly be at times unconscious) occurs for ideological reasons, for reasons of professional rivalry, or as a result of other more complex cultural forces. It has traditionally been a particularly effective method of silencing women’s voices. As Schor puts it:
Thus, the nonconformist point of view can be taken out of history. Even if you speak, you are denied voice. You are not acknowledged at the level you are critiquing. Just as in the schoolyard, in the ABCs of romantic engagement, ignoring someone is an easy way to deploy power...[whitelisting is] an effective [tactic] if you were interested in power to begin with, have arrogated it to yourself, and convinced others you have it.
For lovers of the traditional book, electronic text-replacements (i.e. e-readers, webpages and online magazines) can be cognitively demanding and aggressively unintuitive. Design concepts meant to improve access to information and resources serve only to confuse and impede it. Even the re-designed paper New Republic has fallen prey to such approaches. The magazine had an historic opportunity to mine its own tradition of mid-century modernist thinking and create a new kind of journalistic document; instead it has allowed itself to fall back on a “new normal” that finds its design origins in the old Spy magazine, with “separated-at-birth” type visuals and Don’t Make Me Think presentations replacing serious cultural analyses. We can’t help but feel the same way about over-informing websites, their electronic pages cluttered by links and advertising. “Reading” has most definitely been redefined. We well know that this new universe has almost wholly replaced other forms of literary experience so that, as Johanna Drucker in “Reading Interface” (published in the most recent issue of PMLA) has rather thickly articulated it, “we live in a material and symbolic domain of actualized encounters, the boundary spaces of interface relations, through which we imagine our lives into being and give knowledge its forms of expression.” Since it’s our belief that human beings need relief from theoreticalized existence, we intended the design of the LongNookBooks site (admittedly an electronic construct) to provide an alternate “symbolic reality,” something more like a conversation that might take place at a quiet art gallery or during a walk along a deserted beach. What we’ve attempted is to create is not a forum for self-aggrandizement or professional networking, but a relevant way of sharing our passion for -- and engagement with -- the domain of art and ideas.
This afternoon Mary Maxwell gave a talk as part of the Queens College MFA Program’s “Trends in Translation” speaker series. Maxwell’s discussion stemmed from her abiding interest in “the female voice” in the Western poetic tradition and drew on her own translations of the Roman poet Sulpicia and the Provençal poet Beatrice of Die. Translations of the works of other women poets incorporated into her three poetry collections include versions of the anonymous chansons de toile, a hymn of Hildegarde of Bingen, and her own version of one of the Psalms translated by the Countess of Pembroke (sister of Sir Philip Sidney). Her Queens lecture will be included in a collection of some of her talks and essays to be brought out by LongNookBooks in 2014. A list of these may be found elsewhere on this website:
A number of the essays can be currently accessed on JSTOR or at the website-archives of the journals and magazines themselves.
Who is Harriet? The reference at the Poetry Foundation website is, of course, to Harriet Monroe, first editor of Poetry. But increasingly we at LongNookBooks wonder just who it is who comprises the “Harriet Staff,” collective author of the unsigned postings at the Harriet blog. Despite the attempt to “emotionalize” its online presence with Monroe’s first name, Poetry Foundation and its electronic network of linked forms has become an impersonal institutional behemoth. To say it is an influential -- or more exactly, powerful -- force in the poetry market would be an understatement. We are reminded of the dialogue between Octavio Paz and Cornelius Castoriadis in the collection Postscript on Insignificance (translated and published in 2011 by Continuum). Speaking of the increased conformism of western society and the “faceless inhuman power” of its “institutional bearers,” Castoriadis observes:
There is no conspiracy, but everything conspires in the sense that everything radiates together, everything radiates in the same direction...We no longer worry about knowing if what we produce serves whatever purpose it may be but solely about knowing if it can be sold (and not even about this, because if we produce it, we will make sure, by way of advertising, that it can be sold).
Castoriadis said some things... which touched me profoundly. The first... is that we have reduced (modern society has reduced) the meaning of all values to their economic value. So, in order to renew society, it will be necessary to undertake a critique. The remedies are not solely of an economic character; they have a character that is more profound, moral, or spiritual, whatever you want to call it.
After the interlocutor Alain Finkielkraut asks just who within contemporary society might undertake such a critique, Paz recalls the student movements of 1968 and observes:
Sometimes, in listening to our students or in reading the inscriptions on the walls, I thought of William Blake, of André Breton, of a lot of poets from the nineteenth century -- the romantics -- and from the twentieth century who were rebelling as Baudelaire had done. They were not making denunciations in the name of a class, nor in the name of an economy. What was in play was something completely different: the position, the place of the human person in society, I would say. I think that modern society eliminated values, the very center of the creativity that is the human person.
The current irony of a personless institutional voice (funded by the profits of Lilly pharmaceuticals) speaking on behalf of Poetry would surely not have been lost on either the poet Paz or the philosopher Castoriadis.
Another Stefan Zweig book published by Pushkin Press we’ve been reading is a translation of his The Struggle with the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche. First published in 1925, it comes as something of a surprise that this temperate book was written by the author of emotional fiction such as Letter from an Unknown Woman. As a matter of fact, given its subject, the book’s approach first struck us as excessively measured. The figure of Goethe, introduced in Zweig’s preface, becomes a contrasting point of reference, as in Zweig’s view, the poet Goethe transcended the self-destructive, daemonic personality within himself. Goethe’s example was clearly the one young Zweig hoped to follow. But the even, determined and long-lived career was not to be Zweig’s own fate. Though the ostensible premise of the book is that all three German writers were equally in thrall to “primordial chaos,” Zweig spends most of his pages on the unhappily journeying Hölderlin. It’s hard not to feel in this some presage of Zweig’s own unhappy, wandering end, subject to forces both political and psychic. What will follow in Zweig’s own life saves our initial sense of the book as having perhaps a touch too much of the typical biographer’s self-satisfaction. Yet Zweig’s distancing himself from the daemonic imparts an ironic (and unspeakably sad) aftertaste to his closing sentences: “It is through a study of tragical natures that we become aware of profundity of feeling. Only because there are some whom no yardstick can measure do the rest of us realize our possibilities of greatness.”
Lotte Reiniger should figure prominently in the list of female visual artists whose influence has not been fully acknowledged. In the forthcoming Longnook Overlook, Reiniger makes an appearance in the journal’s career survey of Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, as Reiniger worked with “Cav” on a number of documentaries for the GPO film unit. She also collaborated with her friend Jean Renoir on several projects (contributing, for example, the royal “shadow play” to his 1937 La Marseillaise). Not only was her early masterpiece The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) the first full-length animated film, her animated fairy tales that followed were clearly precursor and inspiration for more commercial productions, such as Walt Disney’s 1939 Snow White, widely cited for its “screen innovations.” The BFI (British Film Institute) online biography for the German-born artist is excellent. And though her work is not well known here in the states, as mentioned below, portions of Achmed were shown as part of the Société Anonyme exhibit at the Yale Art Museum.
Lack of talent or ability isn’t the most depressing thing in an artist: falseness is. Sometimes art comes across as false because it depends on effects (and applause), taking too much into account audience response. In dramatic contrast to a number of breathy, over-emotional poetry presentations we’ve had to endure in recent years, there wasn’t a single fraudulent moment in the Sprague Hall performance of the pianist Radu Lupu last week. In place of a marketable style, Lupu proceeded through the music with a nearly impersonal integrity In direct engagement with the Debussy Preludes or the Four Impromptus of Schubert, the music was an authentic dialogue between musician and his instrument. The concert made us think of lines from a wonderful Robert Walser poem, beautifully translated from the German by Christopher Middleton and just published by Christine Burgin/New Directions in a charming hardcover, pocket-ready form. Walser’s poem is titled “Chopin”: "He played as if he did so wholly/by himself, society/and solitude were to him the same,/yet in the tumult of the world/he gave perhaps his uttermost,/and his playing was so beautiful/because it pleased him to be granted/the right to do so."
Middleton is himself, of course, the real thing, his lines ringing absolutely true as a result of his careful scholarship as well as his own abilities as a poet. (See our note below for December 10.) His Walser poems are nothing like certain pseudo-translations getting published these days, renderings described beneath their titles as “after” rather than “translated from” since the author has no actual knowledge of the target poet’s language. Based on previous translations, these “new” versions either make no improvement on their predecessor or -- even worse -- willfully add sentiments and meanings absent in the source text. Inhabiting a shady area between original expression and not, such translator-poseurs pretend to manifest the sensibility (or historical experience) of poets whose work they are merely exploiting. We are sadly reminded of what the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet said of the issue (quoted by Nathaniel Tarn in the introduction of his own 1967 translations): “I don’t believe that translating poetry is possible. But I wouldn’t really mind if a translator turned my verse into prose provided he didn’t attempt to alter what I originally put down.”
One book we received as a Christmas gift that we’ve particularly enjoyed is Alex Katz’s Invented Symbols: An Art Biography, published by Charta Books. It’s a casual memoir, with article-like chapters edited by his son, the poet and critic Vincent Katz. It has the feel of recorded talk because that’s what it is, but it’s good talk. (The voice of Vincent could be heard on the audio commentary to the MFA show this past year.) Now at Yale, curated by Robert Storr, is another more modest show titled Katz x Katz. In addition to oversized flowers to be viewed from outside through the gallery’s side window (reversing the natural context), many of the show’s larger images might at first appear to reproduce magazine society photos or paparazzi shots of an art opening. Yet the almost Roman frieze-like quality of Twelve Hours has a gravitas that undercuts its billboard-like first impression. A relatively “modest” yellow interior recalls the domesticity of Bonnard. With the grinning face of Edwin Denby presiding over the 32 Edgewood space, for us the show manifests an idea of artistic coterie. This is something rather like an “ideal” family, this presence of colleagues who provide artistic support and inspiration as well as personal affection. From this perspective, Katz’s art cannot easily dismissed as “superficial,” for it reveals something profound about certain social aspects of the New York art world. In this context Katz’s work strikes us as especially meaningful and moving. As the painter himself has commented on the poetry of his friend Frank O’Hara:
His optimism about being alive is stronger than any poet’s I can think of. He makes the time period he lived in vivid, as well as the many other time periods to which he refers. I think he extended himself further out emotionally than his friends. I would love to be able to make an art with these qualities.
At a visit to the newly renovated Yale Art Museum (full of fantastic new spaces and connections between the three buildings), we were particularly taken by the quality of its collection of modern and contemporary art. Also on view was a special exhibit on the history of The Société Anonyme, Inc., works collected by Katharine S. Dreier (with the advise of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray) and transferred to Yale in 1941. In some real sense, the Société, founded in 1920, served as experimental predecessor to MOMA. It presented not just painting and sculpture, but provided venues for Dada “events,” concerts and films (such as the important filmmaker Lotte Reiniger, whose influence on contemporary artists such as Kara Walker can be readily observed among the Yale galleries). Dreier (not unlike the Whitney women discussed just below) was yet another remarkable woman important to 20th century art. A small exhibit drawn from the Société holdings, “Radical Visions Practically Applied: Women’s Innovations in Abstraction, 1915-1937,” showed interesting work by artists and filmmakers whose names are still anything but familiar. We noted the continued obscurity of women artists and patrons in the history of art, a phenomena sadly analogous to the “anonymity” of the truly influential artist in his or her time.
During our late November visit to Tatzu Nishi’s “Discovering Columbus” exhibit high above Columbus Circle, we saw a copy of Flora Miller Biddle’s The Whitney Women and the Museum They Made on the bookshelf of the explorer’s living room. It was fun to imagine Chris perusing Biddle’s volume of “historical memoir” (if there were such a genre in which to file this fascinating book) as the leaves of Central Park went through their changes and Central Park West made preparations for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Was the book’s presence a sly reference on Nishi’s part to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s colossal sculpture of Columbus in Palos, Spain? In any case, coming across the 1999 book made us recall another more recent memoir by Biddle (for nearly twenty years, president of the museum her remarkable grandmother founded ). Though not without its own historical interest, Biddle’s more personal Embers (Plumley Press, 2011) relates the legacy of her Whitney and Vanderbilt forebears in the most engaging terms, with an approach that is both thoughtful and candid.
Jed Perl begins his “best” of the year list (online at The New Republic) with Jacques Bonnet’s observation about art books, about how the reproduced images “come one after another or echo one another, all with their cargo of art works.” After Perl recalls some of the year’s most memorable exhibits and catalogues, he quotes an observation John Ashbery made about the influential Raymond Roussel: “A great example forces one to try to do something completely different.” Perl then concludes,
And so in the arts in 2012 we were always looking for the difference, but also for the echo of what had come before.Those echoes of art’s past are especially strong in a beautiful cycle of poems by Mary Maxwell -- in her new book Cultural Tourism (LongNookBooks) -- concerned with artists and writers whose lives intersected with the landscape and history of Cape Cod...Maxwell inhabits with easy yet never glib precision that mysterious zone where art and life meet. Her words about Hofmann resonate at the end of 2012, as they would at the end of any year in the visual arts: “... Transformation / even death, requires patience, perseverance and acceptance of unknowable / outcomes. Nature is not bound by what we see.”
Next year’s The Longnook Overlook: A Review of the Arts is now editorially complete, and preliminary print production is just beginning. Besides a splendid selection of poems, drama, fiction and translation (the occasional verse of Max Ophuls, for example), the journal will also present a diverse array of critical writing on subjects such as Colette and perfume, “masculine dance” in the fifties film musical, James Levine’s tenure at the BSO, the Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, and the career of the late poet Rachel Wetzsteon.
With the holiday season in full swing, we are thinking about books as gifts, and therefore (given our obsession) about books about books. In this category we would be very happy to receive The Best of Both Worlds: Finely Printed Livres d’Artistes 1910-2010, published two years ago by Godine in consort with New York’s Grolier Club. This beautiful volume takes as its first epigraph the declaration of Joseph Blumenthal: “The art of the book unites two of man’s most cherished goals. The preservation of knowledge is linked with presentation of the noblest poetry and prose in form consistent with the significance of the words.”
Another enterprise that wonderfully manifests that mandate is The Cahiers Series, brought out by Sylph Editions in association with the Center for Writers and Translators at the Arts Arena of the American University of Paris. A boxed set contains their first eight productions: The first volume made available Richard Pevear’s Translating Music (a translation of Pushkin followed by a talk on translation); subsequent cahiers included work by Murial Spark, Lydia Davis, and Alan Jenkins. Our personal favorite is #6, Text on Textile by Isabella Ducrot (which presents not only Ducrot’s text, but her textile artwork alongside the poetic commentary of Patrizia Cavalli). The most recent in the slipcase (#8) is a selection of Paul Muldoon’s translations and poems entitled When the Pie Was Opened. The series, brilliantly fulfilling its intention to publish work that does not “fit neatly within the narrow categories dictated by most booksellers and publishers,” is edited by Dan Gunn.
The last twenty pages of Just Look at the Dancers,Christopher Middleton’s most recent collection of poetry, is a series entitled “Monostichs.” As Middleton himself notes, a monostich is really a one-line (usually end-stopped) poem; Middleton’s poems here are made up of a series of connected monostiches such as “Manet crushed his parents into a confining space.” As even that meaning-packed line suggests, a lot is going on in these pages: For if each line projects an entire poem, each poem feels more like a book, and the series ends up with all the narrative and emotional impact of an epic. It’s hard to describe exactly what happens in these poems (dedicated to Middleton’s father), but suffice it to say it’s analogous to a visually demanding yet rewarding work of cinema, both innovative and traditionally well-crafted. Given their depths of intellectual understanding (historical, aesthetic, spiritual), this is not the work of a young man; yet in their exhilaratingly untethered pinball-machine impulses, these poems can feel like the inspired work of a young contemporary:“Books ignored, words abused, personal memory wilts. // The gadget does things for and against you,” or “Coherences of poetry and painting are victories but still we soldier on.”
As Mary Maxwell became a member of PEN in 2012, three LongNookBooks publications will be displayed at PEN American Center’s New Members/New Books party to be held at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn this Wednesday.
On another of our recent visits to New York City we encountered some memorable art: the Daniel Brush exhibit at the Museum of Design and Art, entitled Blue Steel Gold Light, showed the artist’s ink on paper abstractions alongside his extraordinary creations in precious metals and diamonds: “These works are a record of my breathing, a record of time, and an acceleration of being on and in the work.” The beautiful accompanying catalogue published by the museum is additionally a work of art. Also seen: in the Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca’s exhibit, Diarios, at The Drawing Center huge rondels, created as tabletops of collage, record “the ebb and flow of life inside and outside the studio.” And in the gallery’s the back room was found José Antonio Suárez Londoño’s The Yearbooks, visualized recordings of things seen -- theater or books read. Drawing as notation or an nonelectronic blog, these are responses rather than “illustrations” to Kafka, Patti Smith’s poems, or the journals of Delacroix.
For those with a passion for the “bricks and mortar” bookstore, Cambridge’s Grolier Book Shop has a nearly legendary status. In the New York of our own bygone days, there was once the comparably legendary Gotham Book Mart, Books & Co, Pomander Bookshop, Hacker Art Books, etc. -- all locations that have since passed into the mists of cultural history. The Strand alone remains, albeit updated with an elevator. New York has a few newer excellent entries (Soho’s McNally Jackson, among others) that still provide the experience of discovery and encounter with voice and eye, of picking up and putting down actual volumes of writing and visual art. But while we wholeheartedly acknowledge the ease with which the rare book can now be located online, the idea of the bookstore can’t really be recreated at a website. Even the best blog is not a substitute for the overheard conversation; the chat with the proprietor as to who’s stopped by or about what’s going on in the publishing community; what fellow habitués might currently be reading.
Once again we watched a New York City disaster on the television, ex-New Yorkers no longer “there.” Images of Hurricane Sandy showed familiar streets flooded, the inundation of Chelsea galleries with Hudson River water rather than a weekend’s human overflow from the High Line. We observed once again from a distance the vulnerability of “downtown.” That phrase of place was once related to a sense of self now attached to a neighborhood considerably more commercial -- it’s gone from an adverb to an adjective -- a style rather than what we still like to think of as our former “lifestyle.”
LongNookBooks is very pleased to have Mary Maxwell’s three books of poetry available for sale at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge. A nexus for Harvard stylistically diverse undergraduate poets such as Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Donald Hall and Charles Bernstein, it remains the place to encounter contemporaries such as William Corbett, David Ferry and Robert Pinsky. Celebrating its 85th anniversary under the direction of Ifeanyi Menkiti, it is still a vibrant meeting place for readings and signings.
On a recent visit to New York, we found ourselves at the “new” Poets House at Battery Park City. A familiar haunt in its previous location on Spring Street, the library and exhibit space is now just a stone’s throw from the World Trade Center site, now being noisily rebuilt. It remains a location still painful for former New Yorkers to visit. The prose poetry of Emporia is, in part, one woman’s attempt to process her experience of that world-altering event referred to as “9/11”:
Three numbers as a point of reference. Date as vehicle expressing something larger, ambiguous as a living language, tenor varying depending on context. With this convulsive, discontinuous memoir, awkwardly processing. Ghostly twinned forms as backdrop to her life and times. Before and after.
Just at the top of the Poet House staircase there is a small but fascinating exhibit about Betty Cray who, along with Stanley Kunitz, was one of the founders of organization. As Cray had also been director of 92nd Street Y in the sixties, on display is a series of fascinating “po-biz” correspondence (Auden, Lowell, et al.) proposing and arranging a number of now-historical events.
Travel books have long been a favorite genre here at LongNookBooks. Among the series we have admired are the Picador Travel Classics (which included Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio) and the National Geographic Directions (W.S.Merwin’s The Mays of Ventadorn, among others). Most recently we came across the Atlas Pocket Classics’ 2008 boxed set on travel in France: James Fenimore Cooper’s Gleanings in France, Robert Louis Stevenson’s hilarious Travels with a Donkey and Edith Wharton’s A Motor-Flight through France. This series of hardcovers (sized for reading with one hand) seems to us especially charming. Edited by James Atlas, with an introduction by Diane Johnson, the books’ menu-like covers perfectly suit the publisher’s enterprise, a literary excursion redolent of our own French sojourns.
Though versions of Mary Maxwell’s translations of the Roman poet Sulpicia were first published in the 1995 anthology, Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry, LongNookBooks was happy to publish updated versions in Maxwell’s poetry collection, An Imaginary Hellas. As John Burt noted in the most recent Literary Matters, Maxwell gave a talk on her translations at the 2012 ALSCW conference held at Claremont-McKenna College. In her discussion (which also touched upon other translations of the “female voice” reprinted in Cultural Tourism)
Mary Maxwell discussed how the poetry of Sulpicia gave a powerful turn to the literary and social dilemmas which entangled the female lyric voice, caught sometimes between modesty and frankness, by giving her poetry a bold sexual declarativeness that must have been especially striking in performance.
It’s official: Cultural Tourism is in the running for a Pulitzer Prize! Well, actually, as true as this statement may be, it’s not quite as impressive as it might at first appear: What has occurred is that LongNookBooks has entered the title in the 2013 Pulitzer Prize competition, overseen by the Pulitzer Prize Office at Columbia University. Nominated finalists, chosen by a committee appointed by the Pulitzer Board, will be announced in the spring along with the year’s winner. LongNookBooks firmly believes Mary Maxwell’s Cultural Tourism deserves serious consideration as “a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author.”
Though there are a number of independent publishers whose works we read and admire (The New York Review series of reprints and children’s books; Green Integer’s poetry titles, as well as Douglas Messerli’s PIP Anthologies; the astonishing volumes that keep being brought out by Zone Books), the lovely paperbacks brought out by Pushkin Press have lately dominated our bedside reading stacks. No one needs to be told about the sublimity of Stefan Zweig, but we are newly grateful to Pushkin Press for their rainbow-colored set of his novellas and short stories (mostly translated by Anthea Bell).
Poetry reviews are an increasing rarity in the general press. Today’s NYT magazine feature on Stephen Burt suggests more attention is perhaps being paid to the critics than to the poets. It’s a tough time for books of poetry to get the attention they deserve. As LongNookBooks publisher David A. Keller has written in a cover letter accompanying a set of review copies:
Given the sheer volume of poetry being published just now, both in print and electronically, I know how difficult it is to keep up with, let alone review, what is being offered. Under such circumstances it is perhaps understandable that the ambitious poems and translations of An Imaginary Hellas (reflecting the female voice’s historic struggle for literary expression through one girl’s passage to motherhood) or the engaging prose poetry of Emporia (ending in homage to the poet’s years in Manhattan) were for the most part overlooked. But with the book publication of these works alongside Cultural Tourism, it is my hope that Mary Maxwell’s poems might now receive the critical acknowledgement they deserve.
The cover of Mary Maxwell’s Cultural Tourism (set side by side with the works of Thoreau and Millay) was featured on the poster for yesterday’s reading at Truro Treasures’ “Prose & Poetry Night” at the First Parish Truro Meeting House. Maxwell read from “Hans Hofmann,” her portrait of one of Truro’s permanent residents.
At LongNookBooks for some years now we’ve admired Seagull Books. Though we’re aesthetically inclined toward the “matched set” (the visual consistency of Gallimard folio paperbacks, for example), the varied designs of Seagull are a real pleasure to book lovers. We first came across the press when we picked up their translation of Theodor Adorno’s essays on music (Night Music, translated by Wieland Hoban, 2009) at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. Whether it was the feel of the paper, the translucent and sparkling book jacket whose design was picked up by the foil-imprinted endpapers, or the humble yet passionate tone of the translator’s introduction -- for all these reasons, we literally couldn’t put it down. Last year the press published another translation masterpiece, Cees Nooteboom’s Portrait of an Other, written in 1993 in collaboration with the German artist Max Neumann and translated by David Colmer. We thought such a production would not soon be matched, and yet, Seagull has just published Stephen Romer’s translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s L’Arrière-pays, complete with reproductions of the Italian paintings referred to in Bonnefoy’s hallucinatory poetic prose. All three books are priceless examples of how the greatest works of literature do somehow manage to find readers through the visionary perseverance of their translators and publishers.
The official publication date of Cultural Tourism is tomorrow, though a number of “advance copies” have been circulating over the summer. Word-of-mouth response on the book has been excellent, with a number of Mary Maxwell’s fellow poets already choosing their favorites: New York School aficionados express admiration for “The New York School of Beauty” (i.e. “the Jimmy Schuyler poem”); Francophiles have responded to “A Song of Max Jacob”; women poets are in a particular position to appreciate, “To Frederick Seidel, An Old Man.”
A nearly full house turned out for Mary Maxwell’s poetry reading at the Wellfleet Library last Wednesday evening (August 22). Librarian Elaine McIlroy introduced, quoting Guy Davenport’s observation that
Mary Maxwell’s criticism is so beautifully done, so alive, informed, and intelligent that I’m envious of her craft. Each paragraph has something new, while charmingly continuing… She is literary – admirably – without any hint of being a Literary Scholar.
The open-house fundraiser this past Wednesday (August 15) for the Truro Meeting House was so old-fashioned that it might have been a scene from a Frank Capra movie inhabited by energetic and civic-minded Yankees. (The celebration began and ended with the ringing of the Paul Revere-cast bell.) The historic building, a beautiful early 19th century church (the First Congregational Parish of Truro), is in need of restoration. Surrounding grounds comprise a graveyard where, among others, Hans Hofmann is buried. The painter’s final resting place is described in Cultural Tourism’s “Hans Hofmann”:
to yet another world, his final granite composition remains set down upon
a Truro hillside where he lies dreaming between his two childless wives.
Yesterday’s publication party for Cultural Tourism at the LongNookBooks home was attended by 70 or so poetry and pizza enthusiasts. Fantastic wood-oven pizza was prepared and served by Pizza Barbone of Hyannis, a meal chosen in honor of the book’s poem, “To Dante Alighieri”:
On the crowded shores of Lake Garda, Dante
they’ve named a pizzeria
after your Commedia...
... And yet,
what communion is more divine
than pizza porcini with truffled grana
and a glass or two of Bardolino?
John Kelly’s show at the Julie Heller Gallery in Provincetown opened last Friday (July 10) on a particularly rainy summer evening. Tucked in a corner of what was once the Provincetown Playhouse box office, the stylistically ranging series of self-portraits only give an introductory suggestion of Kelly’s performance genius. From Cultural Tourism’s “John Kelly”:
Face as blank page or
canvas, expression shifting with wet oil-paint mutability, changeable as
social gesture and gender categories.
On August 3 was the opening of the Paul Resika show at Berta Walker Gallery, where the great painter’s “Creation Series,” was the initial inspiration for Cultural Tourism’s “Paul Resika” poem:
gallery is a windowed aquarium where viewers swim through acrylics...
Long Point: An Artists’ Place is also up at PAAM, just next door to the Robert Motherwell exhibit. Long Point Gallery was a collaborative gallery (1977-1998) whose members included Motherwell, Judith Rothschild, Varujan Boghosian, Sidney Simon and Fritz Bultman, among others. (It was Bultman who’d arranged for Hans Hofmann’s wife Miz to come to America, as noted in Cultural Tourism’s “Hans Hofmann.”) A particularly wonderful Paul Resika painting hangs at the end of the big room.
On July 20 was the opening of the fantastic Robert Motherwell: Beside the Sea show at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Motherwell’s forceful images (“One might say that the true way to ‘imitate’ nature is to employ its own processes”) recalls lines from Cultural Tourism’s “Robert Motherwell” poem:
Wielding expensive brush against bone’s blankness, the
albino whale is attacked with the sword of a samurai or caped toreador.
The Wellfleet Marketplace Weekly Book News describes Cultural Tourism as
an intelligent yet accessible new collection of poetry from Truro’s LongNookBooks. The middle section of the volume recalls Outer Cape residents who have left their mark on the cultural life of this sandbar -- Edna St. Vincent Millay, Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Blanche Lazzell, Mary McCarthy and Edward Hopper among others. Look for it in our Local Authors section.
Cultural Tourism is also now available for purchase at Tim’s Books in Provincetown.
Everyone who’s anyone on the Outer Cape seemed to be at the party on July 6 at PAAM to celebrate the new issue of Provincetown Arts. The magazine contains an ad for Cultural Tourism, as well as a note in the magazine’s “Buzz” column;
Mary Maxwell’s new collection of poems, Cultural Tourism, contains a series a verbal portraits of Outer Cape resident past and present (such as Millay, Lazzell, Breuer, Mailer, Motherwell, Resika). “As in certain special European locales,” she writes of the areas’s remarkable roster of artists and writers, “those who have committed themselves to a life of the imagination seem to have remained here as its perpetual inhabitants.” Trained in Classics at Columbia, Maxwell recently returned from Claremont McKenna College, where she gave a talk of Roman erotic elegy at the 2012 ALSCW conference. Given her view that art exists “outside of mortal time,” it’s no surprise that poems in Cultural Tourism address Catullus and Virgil as though they were contemporaries and actual contemporaries, such as performance artist John Kelly, as though they were already immortal. Mary served as Poetry Editor of Provincetown Art’s 2005 issue.
LongNookBooks is an enthusiastic supporter of Truro's Payomet Performing Arts Center. Look for our ad for LONGNOOKBOOKS.com in this season’s program.