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Piuma, Chris. [On January thirty-first...]. (Crane Paper No. 7). Albuquerque, N.M.: Crane's Bill Books, 2008.

A few copies of this thin, slight, ephemeral book of ten thirty-one word pieces arrived today; more will arrive later. It is handsomely made and probably ticklish.

If you would like a copy: I don't know how many copies of this I will have, but I will trade some for other pleasant ephemera, or I have a few copies of my first chapbook left and would offer both for a more substantive trade, or whatever. Drop me an e-mail. My first name, then my last name, with no spaces or punctuation between, at Google's mail service.

1. Following up on this post, as follows:

Agius of Corvey heightens this biblical consolatio in the poem he composed in 876 on the death of the Abbes Hathumod (d. 874). He points out not only the patriarchs but also their wives died; likewise the Apostles and others besides. It takes him over a hundred lines (Poetae, III, 377, 229 ff.). Laudable industry! But hardly a "touching lament," as it has been called.
[Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 80-81]
2. But then as follows:
The piece is titled "Closet Drama" and has been performed twice so far, once in Portland (for the second Sound Poetry Festival in August of 2004) and once in Tucson in 2006. It is both time and location specific, and the content is generated anew for each performance

The performance consists of reading a list of family names taken from death records. There's a brief, ritualistic prelude in which I don a uniform of black hat, black leather jacket, black leather gloves. I read the names quickly -- not as fast as possible, but without pause, and rhythmically.

The laws regarding access to death records vary from state to state. In Portland, I was able to transcribe the names of recently deceased, from the three months prior to the performance; in Tucson, the information is sealed for fifty years. That creates a specific historical distance to whatever information the family names by themselves provide.

You may remember that the Office of Vital Statistics here would have charged a pretty substantial fee to provide the data to me, in electronic or hard-copy form, yet I was permitted to sit in the office of Vital Statistics and transcribe from their computer printouts onto a laptop at no charge (I borrowed your laptop, and accomplished it in an afternoon). In Oregon, the full records are only open to family and others with a demonstrated need or right to know; for nonauthorized persons, the information is limited to name, date of death, and not much else. (So, cause of death, address, etc. is suppressed.)

The piece operates for me on several levels -- it is a list poem, with alphabetic and temporal structures (in the Portland version, the alphabet starts over three times, once for each month from which the names are taken); it is a sound poem (or even text setting), which also represents in concrete form aspects of the makeup/distribution of the community (ethnicity of names, etc.); it is a dirge, an image of faceless dead (in that sense a sort of inverse of Christian Boltanski's nameless dead, the photographs of faces in some installations, that he has referred to as "my Swiss").

I think that it was also a response to the desire to read the phone book aloud -- something that I'd still like to do, but that presents severe logistical challenges. Of course, the two projects are complementary, dealing with the dead and the living. The incompleteness of each of those registers is also important -- that is, I couldn't say that those were the names of everyone who had died in Multnomah County in those three months, only that those were all the names on record . . . .
[David Abel, personal correspondence to me]
3. I guess there's no need to argue with someone writing in the early 1950s. But Curtius was so obviously misguided here. And I knew this because I had seen David perform his piece, and because it was an even more industrious, even more lengthy list of the dead. One that had even less traditional "literary merit" than Agius's, one that was even less concise and sharp-hewn, perhaps, in the sense that David didn't choose the names involved, but left everything to the Office of Vital Statistics and to the vagaries of death. So it was obvious that Curtius's rebuffing of the Agius for being too exhaustive and thus too boring and thus not moving was too simple.

But also, I knew how to listen to David's piece. For one thing, I had an immediate context for it: All those recitations of lists of names of those who died of AIDS that were so... well, "popular" isn't the word... back in the early nineties. And the technical interest of those readings, which at first seems almost inappropriate to mull over: How is this list of names organized? How is that name really supposed to be pronounced? What does it mean, to honor someone but mispronounce their name? Who has authority over the dead, who even has the authority to include them on this list? And when will it end, dear lord, when will it end? And it doesn't end, and it doesn't end, and you just wish it would end, and then you realize that the inappropriate train of thought has become appropriate, because of course you do wish it would end, you wish a cure would be found and this onslaught of death would end, because death is boring and repetitive and endless and we must have something better to do, but do we really have anything better to do than to remember, than try to understand, then try to work our way through the sheer weight of what death has done? Do we owe the dead at least that much? Or do we owe death that much?

4. Not to say that Agius's text does that. I have to track down Agius's text before I make any claims about what might be going on in it. Perhaps it was simply not industrious enough to be a properly "touching lament". Or perhaps Curtius was unable or unwilling to be touched by the text, to recognize its tedium as a effective and affective form of writing.

The only thing worse than a fetish for innovation is a fetish for tradition.

This is very unbloggy of me, but I'm reposting a response that I made all of ten days ago to a blog post on another blog. Because one of my plans for this blog was to collect some of these wayward comments, and because I'm too useless in this humidity to write a proper post. Anyway, go read the original and the follow-ups, which make some good points to temper what I write here. This has been slightly edited for recontextualization and clarity and regret.

I have some issues with Guy Davenport's idea that "the purpose of poetry is to teach". Not that it isn't true, but that, in most cases, it isn't helpful.

After all, you could argue that pretty much everything is to "teach". The purpose of breaking up with your boyfriend is to teach him that he is incompatible with your life. The purpose of mainstream television (in the U.S., at least) is to teach you to be a lazy, content, and unparticipating citizen (or, so you could argue).

This conceptualization of poetry's purpose also presents itself as a sort of litmus test, a sine qua non, and a way of judging poetry. "Did I learn something from this poem? No. Thus it must be a bad poem." I'm not sure it works like that, or has to work like that.

Also it puts a terrible strain on poets. Although this might just be a personal preference: When a poem reads as thought the writer had something important to teach me, I am more likely to be, well, turned off. "Why didn't you write a self-help book, if that was your purpose?", that is the sort of response I am likely to have.

But, that might be a personal preference. Your mileage might, and probably does, vary.

I think the idea that the purpose of poetry is to teach is a tempting idea for those of us who enjoy poetry and who enjoy learning. But I think ultimately it falls into a trap: It tries to justify poetry, which I don't think needs to be justified, which I suspect should adamantly not be justified. I can talk about the benefits I've gotten from reading and writing and thinking about poetry, as I'm sure you and many others can, but...

I don't know, this might be going too far, but justifying poetry is a way of incorporating it into a system of costs and rewards -- into, I guess, capitalism -- in a way that I'd rather resist. It's like talking about the benefits of religion, or love, or having a pet -- sure, having a pet might help an elderly person live a longer and happier life, but I suspect that doesn't work as well if one only gets the pet for that purpose, and I also suspect that for most elderly people, they do not keep their pets in order to stave off death! The analysis -- the act of analysis -- just seems to miss the delightfully ineffable point of it all.

Unexpected! I was certainly not his biggest fan, though I did enjoy some of his essays and some of his short stories. But I will point to that bit about the footnote that I posted recently, and suggest that, while I can't really say how successful it was in Adorno, DFW used his endless footnotes and many other rhetorical tricks to try to recreate a sense of thinking that was not one-dimensional, but constantly breaking off and curling back and doing all those fractal things that we (or, I) think of thinking as doing.

In 1974, staff at Canada Post's Montreal office were noticing a considerable amount of letters addressed to Saint Nicholas coming into the postal system, and those letters were being treated as undeliverable. Since those employees did not want the writers, mostly young children, to be disappointed at the lack of response, they started answering the letters themselves. The amount of mail sent to Santa Claus increased every Christmas, up to the point that Canada Post decided to start an official Santa Claus letter-response program in 1983. Approximately one million letters come in to Santa Claus each Christmas, including from outside of Canada, and all of them are answered, in the same languages in which they are written. Canada Post introduced a special address for mail to Santa Claus, complete with its own postal code:


God: "Palin? Oy! A yoni lapdog!"

* * *

[A certain newspaper that's running a "Sarah Palindrome" contest -- you google it yourself if you care -- told me they couldn't print "yoni" in a newspaper, after they asked me what it meant.]

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;

Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.

Wm Shkspre, R&J, prologue
This is a little complicated, so bear with me. There's a reward at the end, I hope.

Craig Conley created a terrific dictionary of one-letter words, including as many definitions as he could find for each letter. Then, through a series of ineffable events, he developed The X-O-Skeleton Story Generator. You play a game of Tic Tac Toe, alternating between Xs and Os, until the game is won (or drawn). Each X and O is connected to one of a few dozen possible meanings for that letter, drawn from Craig's dictionary. X might refer to magnifying, like a 4x camera zoom lens, or it might refer to the mark one makes instead of signing one's name, or the mark that tells you where to sign it. By the end of the game you'll have a string of up to nine different concepts, alternating between Xs and Os like the kisses and hugs at the end of a letter.

I decided to give this method a try. But I don't write stories, and I enjoy making my constraints as tricksy as possible, so I decided to write a limerick. One that gives a basic account of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, much as he himself does in the prologue quoted above. Also, like the play, the Tic Tac Toe game had to end with neither side winning, which meant packing nine different concepts into the five lines. Also I tried to work in as much internal rhyme as I could, because if you're going to rhyme, you might as well rhyme all the way.

Anyway, you can read "An X-O-gesis of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet" at Craig's blog.

I strongly encourage others to give the X-O-Skeleton Story Generator a try; I don't think the possibilities are nearly exhausted yet.


So, yes, this week grad school has begun with a battery of language competency tests (which so far seem to have gone fine), but. This blog's ridiculously frequent update schedule will probably take a severe hit over the next few weeks, and then come back to a far slower trickle. Your author would apologize, but we are all probably better off for it. Have I, in some way or another, made my point, and will I not just keep repeating my point? I don't know. If you think I haven't, let me know. If you see something and feel that you know "what would Chris think?", then surely I have. And there are so many other blogs to read, and so many other voices to consider.

Anyway this is just to explain why things will surely be slowing down for a bit. But not to a complete halt, not yet.


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