Reading Ron Silliman’s Link Lists (Feb. 9 & 17)

by Maggie Clark

Packing up and moving a store (out of active service, into storage) is long and tiring business, physically and emotionally.

Now that it’s done, though, and my body is covered in cuts and bruises, scrapes and aches, today’s a day for playing catch-up in every other aspect of my life. Hope there’s plenty of good reading afoot!

Ron Silliman, Link List, February 9, 2011

1. I started this link list a couple weeks back, and stopped right after viewing this book trailer for Inferno by Eileen Myles (though that link is no longer functional; here‘s another, just as good!). The energy is great, the narrative of self she’s created is pronounced and playfully wrought, and the work itself looks like fun, which makes this book trailer (in my mind, one of the most fascinating media forms to come out of the internet age) a success unto itself. The last time I watched this trailer, I didn’t go any further down the links list for good reason–wanting to share this piece with others and then heading out for work. This time I watch the trailer for a good pick-me-up before the rest of this links list.

2. And I definitely needed it. A half dozen of links just a little ways down the links are obliquely titled–“Numbers trouble 2010,” for instance–but the literary world was so abuzz in a particular kind of number trouble a few weeks back that I know at a glance these links all relate to gender disparity in literary publications. Of them, I think I ally myself best with Becky Tuch’s “Submitting Work: A Woman’s Problem?”, in large part because she stresses the complexity of the problem over easy fixes. I also have to point out that, in theatre, a gender study focussed on submission success rates found that male gatekeepers ranked male and female playwrights equally; it was the female gatekeepers who were more likely to shut down members of their own sex. For me, this is as clear an example as it gets: who’s in charge and who’s not is never the be-all and end-all of our ongoing debate about creating truly representative literary content.

3. A similarly elliptical presentation emerges in a wonderful little bit of precision meandering from Charles Simic, in a post entitled “Where Is Poetry Going?” Nowhere, is Simic’s answer, and he has some interesting ways of getting there:

This can’t be right, you are thinking. You’ve read plenty of poems about poets walking in the woods, rolling in the hay and even taking a sightseeing trip through hell. True enough. Nevertheless, poets, even when they are fighting in a war, rarely take off their slippers. Doesn’t Homer’s blindness prove my thesis?

This piece is delicate and self-effacing, even as it plays into the conventional language of rhetorical literary analysis–a balance only a few poets I can think of would ever rightly strike.

4. Oh, I should be clicking on links to the Egyptian poetry discourse following the citizens’ revolution, but I’m resistant to the newness and the seeming trendiness of these topics. Instead, a link to William Bronk’s audio recordings catches me fast; Bronk speaks with the steady, mournful quality of a narrator of old-time radio dramas, and there’s wealth of poetry available to be heard aloud. I put the full recording on and take some time watching the wind through ice-shingled trees out my backyard window.

5. The next link is difficult to assess at a glance: “Poems, prose, & The New Yorker“–well, that could be anything, couldn’t it? In this case, it’s a review of a book of letters between Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker (excepting, curiously, the nitty-gritty financial affairs) from The Boston Pheonix. Most interesting in this link is a series of incisive comments about The New Yorker itself. In particular, I enjoyed the following:

In terms of poetry, the silliness gets real when Biele describes Howard Moss as “one of the most influential editors of his generation.” Nonsense. As Biele notes, he was limited by, for example, having no room for the Beats or Objectivists. If Biele means that Moss’s influence allowed him to put certain poets in the pages of a magazine where their work might be read by what was once called the common reader, then she is right. But the limits Moss worked within kept too much vital American poetry out for him to be influential beyond the New Yorker’s pages.

There are also some interesting insights into Bishop’s placement (by others) within canonical narrative, making this a rather satisfying review–modest in scope, yes, but well rounded, too.

6. My next link selection is a little selfish; with a work of mine coming out soon in e-book format, I’ve been inundated by news of the medium–mostly, success stories that are staggering in monetary measures (less so in quality)–so I’m refreshed to see a piece that tempers the discourse, if only marginally, on the future of e-books in relation to print. However, “Four Reasons Why the Sales Growth of E-Books Will Be Slower Than Industry Executives Think” is a little top-heavy: after that considerably declarative subject line, the article itself is wanting in substance. Good thoughts are present here, absolutely! But the observation that readers prefer concrete book objects, for instance, is pretty much left to stand on its own, when there’s a wealth of relevant discussion that might have emerged therein alone. I recognize that this blog post absolutely serves the needs of its creator and his community, but it doesn’t serve my needs for a more in-depth analysis of e-format trending, so I press on.

7. The Boston Review‘s “Does Autobiography Make Good Poetry?” is far more my style. In this comparative book review, Erika Meitner’s Ideal Cities and John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems are ensconced amid far-reaching explorations into the poetic notions of autobiography and lyricism–all of which make for fine reading. Regarding the notion of the self as a cultural phenomenon instead of as universal truth allows these two reviewed collections to create a considerable range of engagements with the question of autobiography. Still, there is plenty of room in this long analysis for more predictable review structures–for instance:

Meitner seems to agree with her naïve “student / who plays the ukulele and is no longer my student” that poetry is a means for self-expression, a way to depict the heart. But Meitner differs from that student—who “sent me a broken-heart poem after his girlfriend / dumped him which used broken things as similes / for his heart”—in that she can depict her life, her heart, with more wit, fresher metaphors, and more self-knowledge than he can bring to his own. Compare the student’s broken poem to the sentences that begin Meitner’s book:
My heart is an Alaskan fishing village during whaling season,
which is to say that everyone is down by the thawing sea.
The huts on stilts are empty, and my heart is a harpoon,
a homemade velveteen parka, hood lined with wolverine.

Meanwhile, Beer’s audaciously-titled effort merits (among others) the following musings from Burt, also along a familiar trajectory for formal poetic review:

Beer is like Bernstein in that he pursues the depthless surfaces of the contemporary, but he is like Eliot in that he often sounds sad about that pursuit: “Poetry, unwished for, flourishes, / A disease of language, while meanwhile / I left my papers on the airplane.”
You can accuse Beer of showy inconsistency: somebody wrote the poems published under his name. But he does not imply that there are no poets, no poems; rather, he implies that if we expect to learn deep truths about the inner life of a unique person by reading a modern poem, we have decided to fool ourselves.

What really stands out in this particular piece, though, is the journey between these traditions of the book review; some philosophical wandering and re-reviewing of other poets’ work forms a history of this particular discourse without binding us to it.

8. With that in mind, I leave off this links list–leaving much, I must add, behind–with a frivolous piece. And no, it’s not the bit on the Chicago poetry brothel (I saw that link elsewhere first, and thoroughly enjoyed it). No, it’s something so ridiculously titled it cannot possibly be serious–and it isn’t. “Dress like an artist” leads to a piece in Paper Monument called “How Artists Must Dress” by Roger White. It’s a cute little number, containing bits of amusement like the following:

The artist’s sartorial choices are subject to the same hermeneutic operations as are his work. When dressing, an artist should imagine a five-paragraph review of his clothes—the attitudes and intentions they reveal, their topicality, their relationship to history, the extent to which they challenge or endorse, subvert or affirm dominant forms of fashion—written by a critic he detests.

Not earth-shattering, but cute!

Ron Silliman, Link List, February 17, 2011

1. My first thought is for the use of hands and chins in poet profiles, as two weeks in a row Silliman’s photo header to the links list features a poet looking gravely and directly at the camera with a hand by his chin. Author photos are always strange affairs, though, and I’m especially reminded of this pictorial essay on author profile cliches while viewing these two particular shots. After the trip down memory lane, though, it’s off to real links. After the bevy of excellent book reviews in last week’s link list, I’m quickly disappointed by this standard affair on Michael McClure, then ambivalent about the write-up of a “walking poem” protest action, but the next link? The next link is a doozy.

2. I flinched, I did, at the fresh spate of links continuing the debate about the terrible raw numbers for female publication in major U.S. links, but right beneath it was a description so compelling I had to click. “The hermeneutics of a woman’s body,” as Silliman puts it, is just one of the two suggested titles by The Rumpus writer Lidia Yuknavitch; the other–the first title–is “About a Boob,” which makes sense, because her story is indeed the story of one boob, and one nipple, gracing the cover of a book of poetry.

Yuknavitch has a writing style as plainly accessible as it is intelligent, with even its high-handed philosophical references cushioned in the playful act of repetition, and all her great reveals couched in one and the same. Take, for instance, the opening:

When my editor/publisher was choosing a cover for my forthcoming book, The Chronology of Water, she asked me if I had any ideas. I did. In my possession was an abstract series of unusual photographs taken by Andy Mingo depicting a woman’s body in water. Since the central metaphor of my book is swimming, I forwarded the photos to my editor. She loved them. And from among the photos, she chose one for the cover of my book.

It’s a boob.

With full frontal nip.

Yes, I will show you in a minute.

But lest you think this an article predicated on gimmick, let me add that her more analytical phrases are equally striking. For instance, on the censorship issues (explicit and implicit alike) surrounding her choice of book cover, she writes:

Similarly, it is apparently not OK to circumvent the sexually exploitative representation of female bodies so characteristic of television and film by presenting it as a speech act – as an act of representation designed to tease forth the relationship between signifier and signified, or the ground upon which the story of a woman’s body and the image of a woman’s body are precisely articulated by and through a nudity not bound to poles – no pun intended – well maybe just a little – of not just signifier and signified, but also of capitalism and the buying and selling of women’s bodies as objects.

I have not read this woman’s poetry, but the levity of her prose, her self-analysis, and her thoughtful industry makes me want to. This decisive zeal in turn makes me ruminate for a few minutes over the inter-relatedness of literary artistry over various media, but lacking a proper springboard for a more in-depth exploration of such thoughts (just yet, at least), I press on to another link instead of allowing the tangent to more wholeheartedly spill out.

3. Ah, yes, literary scandal. Nothing like it! In Wisconsin, the public sector is rallying in the tens of thousands to protest Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to eliminate collective bargaining among state employees; in D.C., a frustrated poet resorts to stealing a Langston Hughes cardboard cutout from local restaurant and reading venue Busboys & Poets, in protest over the $50 payment to each week’s feature poet. This article really needs to be read to be believed; I realize that disgruntled persons exist in every walk of life, but this has to be one of the silliest and pettiest ways I’ve ever seen of making a public statement for one’s cause.

4. Skipping ahead a bit, I’m caught by word of a “lost” Bolano soon to be published by The Paris Review. Wait, The Paris Review? Publishing a serial novel? Apparently this is the first time in forty years such a thing has happened; is this the sign of what new management looks like, the sign we’ve been waiting for ever since word of Lorin Stein taking the magazine editorship hit the blogosphere last year? It might be, if a related New York Times article (of my own procuring) was accurate when describing Stein as a “proud throwback.” Certainly, TPR has a long history of featuring and premiering long fiction that goes on to be widely celebrated by critics at large, but the serial novel is still a considerable spectre from an entirely different literary world, so this is striking news for me. I very much welcome the return of reading that requires more patient and long-term investment, and after reading this particular issue’s announcement, I’m even more pleased to see Stein’s active, hands-on, and eminently positive approach to negative feedback in the comments section at the bottom. This might very well be an interesting time for a magazine that does so much to influence larger literary trends; in any case, I hope Bolano’s “lost novel” holds up!

5. Next, Silliman’s knack for relevant arrangements of links absolutely shines when I find a reminder, just four links down, that the old ways Stein is harking back to are sorely needed in other aspects of the publishing industry. In this Guardian article, entitled “The lost art of editing,” the following likely says it best:

For some years now – almost as long as people have been predicting the death of the book – there have been murmurs throughout publishing that books are simply not edited in the way they once were, either on the kind of grand scale that might see the reworking of plot, character or tone, or at the more detailed level that ensures the accuracy of, for example, minute historical or geographical facts. The time and effort afforded to books, it is suggested, has been squeezed by budgetary and staffing constraints, by the shift in contemporary publishing towards the large conglomerates, and by a greater emphasis on sales and marketing campaigns and on the efficient supply of products to a retail environment geared towards selling fewer books in larger quantities. In more broad-brush terms, the question is whether the image of the word-obsessed editor poring over a manuscript, red pen in hand, has given way to that of the whizz-bang entrepreneur attuned to the market’s latest caprice, more at home with a tweet than a metaphor.

I tend to agree, and I have to say, it’s had some odd consequences–most of which, the article touches upon. I’ve been at this post for the greater part of the day now, though, so I reluctantly cut short my own additions (for the moment) and prop up another draft to remind me to revisit them properly down the road. That William Bronk audio file chewed up quite a bit of time!

6. I scroll down a bit and linger a moment on “Juliana Spahr on the impact of MFA programs on poetry itself”–a truly intriguing link description that unfortunately opens to a wall of text too dense for me to tackle this late in the game. Had it come earlier, had I not been so behind in my reading, maybe it would have a chance! As it is, though, I turn next to a calm, soothing concrete poem by Bob Grumman. I could stare at “Correction of the Alphabet for bp” all day, it makes me smile so. I don’t, however: I skip down all too soon to another Guardian link, this one entitled “How much collaboration is too much?”, which directs me to a collection of musings about literary collaboration (my thesis subject, ergo dear to my heart). Sadly, these are predictably extreme examples, and most travel well-trod ground without much in the way of fresh insight. It’s a conversation starter of a piece, I understand; but its many absences leave me wanting.

7. I skip a whole slew of links on the book store, e-publishing, and the end of print. Some of the job losses strike me as exceptionally sad, but since my city’s alternative video & media store just closed this last weekend (costing me my own job) I have simply been too entrenched in a clear and depressing understanding of why indie stores go under to suffer any more words on the subject just now. Later, maybe, I’ll feel better about arranging my own thoughts on the subject, and reading the thoughts of others in turn. For now, though, I take the easy road: Four poems at 3:AM Magazine by Danish poet Morten Søndergaard (which make me very much want to finish my current book, Best European Fiction 2010, and get on with its review), followed by two cutesy links about sex and writing. Okay, so “The Best Literary Sex Scenes Not Penned by a Great Male Novelist” tickled me just right after a sex scene from Franzen’s Freedom bewilderingly took second place at a recent Good Sex Awards feature at But I think we can all agree that “30 Literary Quotes that Might Just Get You Laid” is very silly. Still, Neruda easily takes the cake with “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” Poets rule; ’nuff said.

8. I ruefully skim past literary quarrels (okay, I read John Gallaher’s threepart take on the Hoagland/Rankine extravaganza in full, but have not yet decided how I feel about the whole affair), conference run-downs, theatre and fine art news, and only get through bits and pieces of a rag-tag article bundling together various thoughts and experiences relating to bad reviews. This is no slight of the writing in that latter, either–I’m just tired, and want a good final read to close on for the day. And on that note, I jump right to the last link, which also happens to have perhaps the greatest teaser, ever, of any link on Silliman’s links lists. “Correction of the year,” it begins–and then, in italics and a smaller font beneath: “(if not the millennium)”. The millennium still quite young, I am breathless (truly) as I click on this link, racking my brain for hints. Will it be political? U.S.-centric? Global? Is there some literary history in dire need of correction? Has science turned on its head for once and for all?

Oh, I’m not going to spoil it for you. It’s just too good. Language nuts especially, make sure you read the whole thing!

As for me, I’m finally signing off on this post–alive! well! and back in business on this blog at long last. Thanks for your patience, everyone who checked in while I was away.