Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Reviewed by Michael Nicoloff

Long ago—which is to say, about a year and a half ago—word began to get out to those of us toiling in the poetic boondocks that a grand anthology was in the works, one that would demystify such mysterious terms as “The New Brutalism” and confirm whether the rumblings of activity coming from that ever-active San Francisco Bay Area did indeed signal a full-scale invasion by a rabid poet-horde. “Such-and-such poet is featured in the Bay Poetics anthology,” we read in contributor’s notes; rumors of imminent publication dates shot fast down the raging poetic gossip wires. Between this anthology and her then-not-yet-released collection Telling the Future Off, editor Stephanie Young seemed to be synonymous with all things “hotly anticipated.” But then, time passed...and, well, nothing came. To say that accusations of impropriety flew or a scandalous “WTF?” phantom was in the air would be, to say the least, a bit dramatic, but some folks nonetheless began to worry that Bay Poetics had become the Chinese Democracy of small-press poetry anthologies and Young its W. Axl Rose.

But time continued to pass, things changed like they always do, some of us moved to the Bay Area and somehow, both sooner and later than expected, Bay Poetics emerged, and the sheer mass of this near-five-hundred-page brick makes the delays involved both entirely understandable and entirely forgivable. It’s hard not to marvel at the scope and impossibility of this project and the questionable sanity involved in taking it on with an eye towards, you know, actually pulling it off. As Young writes in her eloquent introduction, her intent to “take a photograph” of Bay Area poets and their poetry repeatedly came up against the harsh reality that “wide-angle or not, there is no image-taking device capable of getting a complete picture of Bay Area poetry and poetics.” Perhaps as we speak some mildly psychotic completist is compiling an extensive list of the missing poets in order to author a nit-picky critique, but I have no interest in being that asshole (nor could I be, having logged not even six months in the Bay Area at the time of this writing). The details here are, in my view, less important. What’s vital to address are questions that are much more global and practical—the questions of whether the snapshot this anthology provides is useful, and whether it’s fun to look at.

The answer to the second question is easy to give, because it’s a resounding “Yes.” Just look at the depth and range of work in this book: A quick sampling gives us the part-tech, part-Italian, part-whaaa? language of Bill Luoma’s menacingly funny “Some Math” (“in the stem cells of sulla of oppenheimers/looping isoclinus while the Frobenius norm/inaugurates the law of new nutshells/containing the kernals/of my very own tank”); Pamela Lu’s “Bridge,” a tight prose piece in which Lu considers the interrelated implications the structure of bridges and sculpture—particularly Richard Tuttle’s wire pieces—might have for our methods of reading complex texts; Dana Teen Lomax’s mapping of Bay Area life via the minute particulars of food (“DeeAnn’s garden lettuces with radishes, onions, asparagus, and morel toast”), clothing (“At this point the cocoons – and the caterpillars within them – are placed in boiling water, which softens the sericin and loosens the thread”), and shelter (“This home features sweeping views spanning from Twin Peaks, downtown SF and the Bay from the custom eat-in kitchen and living room with southern hills and tranquil garden views from both bedrooms”); the threat that “Now I really will kill the image” that kicks Judith Goldman’s “if all else fails” into pissed-off gear; the po-mo medieval woe of Tanya Brolaski’s “anxiety of the bullfight” (“I have been half-chlorinated by Love, a figure clowdily enwrapped, my muse fucked by someone other than me, my patron leaving me in the hall.”). I truly could go on for pages here. The quality of the work included is what ultimately makes or breaks an anthology, and in this arena, there’s simply no question that Bay Poetics is up to snuff.

The question, though, of whether Bay Poetics provides a useful tool with which to understand “Bay Area Poetry Now” is a bit more knotty. Young writes that
In arranging the book I attempted, in almost all cases, to trace [the conversational] ecology between writers, connections both social and aesthetic. Drawn as a map, it would look more like overlapping circles with some points and clusters around the edge. But the necessarily linear progression of a book required that I go forward, piece by piece, looking for and highlighting both the obvious and more submerged threads between people.
The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Donald Allen’s school-shaping and statement-making editorial masterpiece, is always the specter haunting anthologies of innovative poetry, and Bay Poetics is no exception. But Allen’s hard divisions of poets are definitely not on order today; in most cases such categorizing imposes a certain rigidity on what is a more complex and fluid social dynamic, but given the anti-definitional stance most poets seem to hold these days, these divisions seem especially specious. Yet swinging to the other extreme and assembling one’s chosen poets in terms of mostly subjective criteria like “flow” or “balance” risks the creation of an incoherent mess—a common occurrence that provides us with a permanent stream of anthologies destined for the remainder tables of bookstores nationwide. Young’s choice to cut a different path and base her anthology on a kind of social montage strikes an interesting balance between these extremes by mirroring the way that the poet world operates—individual poets clump together through, we presume, social and/or stylistic connections, yet the presentation is not so tightly wound that it blocks the lines of connection between poets who on first glance might have little to do with one another. This soft frame makes the structural detective work one could perform on any anthology turn in this case into a worthwhile experience rather than a pointless slog, and it lends the book a unique literariness not often found in these sorts of collections. All this serves to open up a space for exploration, discussion and debate rather than put an oppressive, canon-building fix on the proceedings.

And yet, like in everything, there is no perfect choice to be made, and while Young’s method of organization does create a gorgeous and shifting poetic mass, it also runs the risk of limiting its user-friendliness for anyone outside of the Bay Area poetry scene. One can easily imagine the scenario in which a fresh-faced poetry child, scanning the shelves at a college library/local bookstore/scrubby weirdo’s house, comes upon this tome and, knowing few or none of the names therein, is overwhelmed by this seemingly undifferentiated poetic madness and can find no clear entry point into its undulating folds. Who is who, who’s fighting with whom (in the aesthetic sense, of course), what the defining moments in this scene have been—in short, the basic history of this vibrant group of writers—is included only in obscured fragments. Sometimes the bios help; sometimes not as much—I mean, as much as I adore Alli Warren and think that her self-identification as “Present King of France (PKOF)” provides a more useful lens through which to read her work than any standard bio ever could, I have to wonder if many readers might need a little bit more than that to make do. This montage of poets may indeed, for an informed reader, make for a much more accurate representation of the way this scene (and scenes in general) operates. But in the absence of other contextualizing measures—Where are the (for the most part) absent poetics statements? Where are the reprints of defining blog exchanges? Where are the personal histories, like Young’s own “Biased Cub Report from Oakland on the New Brutalism and Poetry Blogging”?—one can’t help but think that a few more knocks in Allen’s direction of the continuum would’ve made for an easier approach to this text as well as avoided inadvertently reproducing the circled-wagon insiderness that innovative poetry communities are often accused of perpetrating.

But let’s not get so bogged down in thinking about hypothetical readers and poetry politics that we lose sight of the remarkable fact of what we now hold in our hands. Bay Poetics is, indeed, a beautiful photograph of a place in this wide world that’s bursting at its seams with a remarkably diverse set of wonderful poets, and more than anything else, the book gives this set of writers a venue in which to state the fact of their existence—and to be celebrated—as a group. Criticisms aside, the way Young has put this book together makes reading through it an oddly moving experience. Knowing that Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy are married in real life but also, since they’re placed side by side here, get to be “married” in the book, too; seeing, as Young points out, K. Silem Mohammad’s dedications of several of his poems to other poets featured in the anthology; noting the repetitions of names of important streets and landmarks running through widely disparate work—not to be quaint, but it’s all just so sweet. It’s not a common thing to feel as though a poetry anthology has been built on something more substantial than the egomaniacal gestures of a deluded king-maker. But where Bay Poetics paints its clearest picture is in its demonstration of just how much these writers really care about each others’ work and each other as human beings. It’s an anthology built—yeah, let’s say it—on love. It’s the most heartwarming book I’ve read this year.

Originally published in Traffic 2

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