Saturday, February 26, 2011

Drama, Poetry and Song in Two Nights

This will have to be a quick record of what I have seen and heard this week. It's moving weekend! We relocate tomorrow, to our new apartment on the Upper West Side. I am very excited about the change, but all these experiences, planned an age ago, distracted me from the most important event of my life.

Tennessee Williams would have turned 100 on March 26. On Thursday I went with TH to the Baryshnikov Arts Center to watch the Wooster Group's production of Vieux Carre. I did not enjoy the group's use of multimedia, probably because I was missing too many of their references to the 70's. The play itself has wonderfully lyrical passages, but on the whole seems to me self-indulgent and sentimental. With better directing and acting, the stereotypical Williams characters (the sensitive upper class woman, the thuggish boyfriend, the tortured artist) could have exhibited flashes of humanity, but they were mechanical and inert, amongst all the stage machinery, with the exception of Kate Valk who played both Jane Sparks and Mrs. Wire.

Last night, another anniversary event, this one celebrating 60 years of the National Book Award, the National Book Foundation organized a poetry reading at the interesting venue of The Center for Book Arts. It was lovely to wander round the hand-presses. Six poets read, including Stephen Burt, Tony Hoagland, James Longenbach, and Susan Stewart. Hoagland sounded as observant, witty, moving, and bitter in person as he does on the page. He read exactly as I imagined he would read. Susan Stewart, whose translation of Italian poet Alda Merini I enjoyed so much, read a beautiful lyric that compares the darkness outside her window to a piece of cloth.

After the reading, I made my way to Zankel Hall to hear, with LW, the Algerian singer Nassima. She performed an Arab Andalusian Suite in the Sika Mode (key of E), with Hend Zouari on the qanun (zither), Mokrane Adlani on violin and viola, Amar Chaoui on percussion, the charismatic Rabah Kahlfa on the derbouka (goblet-shaped drum), tar, and def (frame drums), and the scintillating Mohamed Abdennour on the oud (unfretted lute), guitar, and guimbri (pear-shaped lute).

The suite begins with Arab Sufi music, continues with music of the Sahara, and ends with Blues from the Casbah of Algiers. The Maghreb Medley was a huge crowd-pleaser, with songs from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Nassima was not a flashy performer. Rather, her ease with her repertoire shows off, more gently, her mastery.

The concert program traces Arab Andalusian music to the early ninth century when Muslim composer-musician Ziryab, moved from Baghdad to Cordoba, and directed all musical activities at the emir's court. After the fall of Granada in 1492, the Arab musical culture was transported to the Maghreb, where it continues in the form of three traditions known as ala in Morocco, san'a in Algerica and malouf in Tunisia.

The program's explanation of the san'a was excerpted and edited from liner notes to Andalusian Music of Algiers on the Institut du monde arabe / Harmonia Mundi label, written by Dr. Leo J. Plencker, and translated by Delia Morris:

The central concept of the san'a is the nuba, the vocal and instrumental suite that consists of five sections. Each section contains at least one melody composed in a specific rhythmic mode. There are 12 nubas named according to the maqam (mode) in which each is composed. Thus nuba sika is a suite composed in maqam sika, which is similar to the Phrygian mode of early European music. The five sections of the classical nuba are called, respectively, m'saddar, b'tahi, darj, insiraf, and khlas. The first three sections are performed in a gentle binary rhythm, while the last two are in ternary rhythm with a gradually increasing tempo. The m'saddar is often preceded by a short instrumental prelude called a touchia played by all the musicians in a 4/4 or 2/4 rhythm. This is followed by another instrumental piece known as a kursi and then the m'saddar itself, which is sung in a slow solemn tempo that offers the singer a multitude of possibilities for ornamentation. The next vocal section, b'thai, is preceded by another kursi.

In a contemporary nuba performance, the singer often inserts a vocal improvisation with no fixed rhythm, known as ishtikhar, that gives him a chance to demonstrate his vocal skill and ability to improvise. The next section, the darj, is sung in a distinctly faster tempo, the latter being in a dance-like 3/4 or 6/8 rhythm that gathers speed until coming to a climax. The section ends with a non-measured vocal and instrumental phrase.

Text/ Poetry

...The poetic forms used are the muwashshahat and the zajal. Both are strophic forms and usually are five-line verses in an ab/ab/ab/cd/cd rhyming scheme. In the muwashshahat, the last two lines of each verse end with the same rhyme, whereas the other three lines change rhyme from one verse to another. In the zajal, the last line of each verse is a refrain. Sometimes an introduction or a prelude known as a matla precedes the muwashshahat or the zajal. It is always rhythmically constructed in the same way as the two lines that finish the verse. Thus: cd/cd//ab/ab/ab/cd/cd//ef/ef/ef/cd/cd//etc.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Word for Body-Soul

I was asked, once, for a word that is not in the English Language but I wish it were. I suggested a word that means both soul and body, a word that reunites the pervasive dualism in my language, and therefore in my thinking.

In an interview in PEN America #13 Lovers,  Atiq Rahimi, who won the 2008 Prix Goncourt for his novel The Patience Stone, gave such a word from classical Persian poetry: "jaan." He says to his interviewer Lila Azam Zanganeh:

It's a word used in Iran and Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is a word of daily life. It's something that we add to the name: for example, you would be Lilajaan. It would be translated as "my dear Lila." It is a word that describes at the same time the body and the soul. There is no separation in "jaan." This separation is something that we find in Christian culture, in Judaism, and in Islam, but before that we had this idea. The separation came about with Islam and with the Judeo-Christian tradition; in our language, we say the word "jessm" for body and "rooh" for soul. But these words are not Persian words, we borrowed them from Arabic. So if we go back to mystic poets--I always like going back to Rumi; he uses this word with its full ambiguity. I could mention hundreds of poems by Rumi when he uses this word. And if you interpret "jaan" as "rooh," or soul, then you have a very mystical poem. But if you interpret it as "body," then they become erotic poems.

In The Patience Stone, the woman, who is not named, falls in love with a solder. Rahimi describes her new consciousness when she becomes the soldier's lover:

She becomes conscious of her body and her soul becomes part of her body. He soul is nowhere else but in her body. It's like a sheet where one side is the body and one side is the soul, but it is one thing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The City as a Pastoral Poem

I have three poems in Mascara, which take Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Elizabeth Bishop as their point of departure. The first two "In His Other House" and "The Hospital Lift" are set in Singapore, one in an imaginary city, the other in a real one from the past, and so possibly just as imaginary. The third poem "The Bowl" is set in New York City. The city is my pastoral poem. Mascara, edited by Michelle Cahill, is "particularly interested in the work of contemporary Asian, Australian and Indigenous writers."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Genesis Statement for New Poetries V

Paul Stevens publishes my poem "The Dying and the Living," written in Yeatsian ottava rima, in response to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, in The Flea. It is one of my favorites. The verse sings feelingly, without flinching.

Michael Schmidt has selected the following poems for the Carcanet anthology New Poetries V: "Attribution," "A Whole History," "The Rooms I Move In," "Study #5: After Frida Kahlo," "Translations of an Unknown Mexican Poet" and ghazals from "A Lover's Recourse." All but the Kahlo poem were previously published in PN Review.

Asked for a genesis statement for these poems, I wrote:
Where did these poems begin? They began on a horrible afternoon when my tutor in his room at Wadham College read aloud the sentences I plagiarized from some book on Ben Jonson. They began in the backroom of a bar. They began with quotations—word, form or spirit—of Eavan Boland, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and Roland Barthes. They began before my wretched grandfather died and after I stopped believing in God. They began at a Frida Kahlo show, studied with half-averted gaze. They began as I walked away from a long-anticipated break-up, two shopping bags stuffed with clothes in each hand, tears watering both cheeks, a cliché on Broadway on a Sunday. So many beginnings. But I think these poems really began when I moved from Singapore to New York and came out, so to speak, as gay. Which is to say that these poems began from humiliation and went on their way.

New Poetries V will be published this fall. There will be a blog to promote the anthology.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Excitement of Writing in Singapore

Gwee Li Sui gave this keynote speech at All In! Young Writers Seminar 2011, organized by the National Book Development Council of Singapore. While exalting the thrilling life of the imagination, he also warns young writers to be realistic in their expectations of fame and money. After pointing out the lack of a reading culture in Singapore, he highlights the economic realities of the book market in the country:

Then, there is the curse of writing in English, and I don’t mean Singlish. Because English is an international medium, writing here does not have the advantage that writing in languages linked to originating cultures and nations have. Those have their ready, tuned-in, and economically viable readership bases. But any excitement in the writing of Singapore gets drowned out quickly by the incessantly renewing excitement in English writings that come from all four corners of the world. The Straits Times isn’t really helping here: just check your Life! Books pages. You are competing with the products of other markets, all larger ones, which also have more established publishing houses within more developed culture industries, with systems of reviewing and advertising books. And that’s for readers in Singapore!

That is a hard truth. Singaporeans do not read Singaporeans, unless the writing belongs to genre fiction, like ghost stories, or "special" interest, like gay. Or the book wins some big award in the UK or USA, which it is more likely to do if the writer lives and works in those much bigger markets. If economic realities depend on the imagination, as the talk contends, what Singaporean writers need is a truly imaginative entrepreneur of the Singapore book.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Simply Haiku

Power to Facebook! Robert D. Wilson directs me to this journal of Japanese short forms, and I like what I read of its haiku section. The essay on the featured haiku poet, Serbian Slavko Sedlar, may protest too much about the bastardizing of a Eastern genre by Western writers, but the haikus it quotes are quite stunning.

From Edinburgh Rob Mackenzie blogs about a haiku lecture by Madoka Mayuzumi. I like her comment about the distance between the flower heads.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Terence" by Eric Norris

Eric Norris has just published his experimental short story, Terence, complete with advance praise by William Shakespeare, W. H. Auden, and The Daily Mail. Book description on Lulu:

'Terence' is a comic translation of A.E. Housman's book, 'A Shropshire Lad.' 'Terence' tells the story of one young man's enduring love for another, complicated by the untimely appearance of his Muse, a cow.

Knowing Eric, I am sure the book is filled with literary high jinks and piercing moral insights. He talks with Wendy Chin-Tanner about the book and self-publishing at The Nervous Breakdown. The interview is opinionated and funny, and so makes a contribution to that often tiresome genre.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

You can buy my new book on Amazon

My new book of poems Seven Studies for a Self Portrait is now available on Amazon. Whoopee-whoop-whoop! Cough, cough. You can read a description of it, and a poem, about Frida Kahlo, on the Bench Press website.

I switched from Lulu to Amazon CreateSpace, and the transition from one print-on-demand to another was quite painless. By paying an annual subscription, I could sell my book on Amazon, and so distribute my book that way. I have my author page up as well, with my bio and bibliography. During the printing stage, my book designer was able to contact Help Desk by phone, in order to get some design parameters right. She uploaded the files easily, and I received the proofs punctually too. Now to see how the book sells and reviews.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Poem: "Changing Countryside"

We heard tonight we got the apartment. I wrote this rough draft to mark the occasion.

Changing Countryside

"Yes, this will be our house,
today I’m here to see it..."
—Alda Merini, “Roman Wedding,” trans. Susan Stewart

The ceiling is too high for the apartment
to make a cage, the living room too wide
to touch the heaving tips of feathered span,
the light too good not to be natural light.

But this high door locks out the open world
and locks security in. In closets, wings
will soon be folded, wrapped, and put away.
The window above the bed is made of steel.

I turn a faucet and, in the falling light,
a river runs to where it drains. I turn,
a beech opens its palm to act a desk.

And you, who by the light of metaphor
are the birdcatcher, are a bird, by me,
singing about the changing countryside.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Jim Crenner's "Drinks at the Stand-Up Tragedy Club" (2008)

Picked up this hardback at Housing Works for six bucks, after warning myself on entering the bookstore not to buy any books. The first poem "The Problem of Meaning" pulled me in and the book never really let go. Crenner is fascinated, bemused, by the dualities of experience and meaning, mind and world, living and writing. The poems are witty and charming. They are also laced with the poet's abiding sense of his approaching death.

There are poems here written in the poet's own voice, as a grandfather, a baseball fan, a gardener, a visitor to the marble quarries of Carrara, a voyeur at Amsterdam's red light district. The poet writes about his reading, a consolation of old age. The poet writes about writing, a hoary and sterile subject in most hands, but productive and entertaining in this poet's. "Negative Capability" is the funniest poem I have ever read about writer's block. There is a series of poems, scattered throughout the book, about looking at various paintings by Vermeer. These ekphrastic poems do not try to transcribe the paintings (a pointless exercise), nor do they try to interpret them (a tendentious one). Instead, they look so deeply that looking (and not looking) becomes their true subject, and so in that way approximates most closely the painter's own concerns. They are some of the best things in the book.

Then there are poems written in other voices. "Melpomene at the Singles Bar" near the beginning of the book speaks in counterpoint to the harassed mother in "Mnemosyne Orders Her Supplements at the Vitamin Store" near the end of the book. Other accomplished acts of ventriloquism include Teiresias, Caliban, Bartleby, and Superman. There is even an audacious attempt to write as Emily Dickinson. "The Blue Fascicle" is supposed to be a sheaf of lost erotic poems. It is not an altogether successful sequence: it lacks the originality of both Dickinson's and Crenner's verses.

Far more vital are the re-workings of Greek myths from unexpected points of view. Such as re-telling the story of Narcissus and Echo from the perspective of the pool's reflection. And my favorite poem of the book "The Swan, Afterward," which begins after Zeus stripped his swan disguise off himself "like a soiled condom." The bird, bewildered by his love for Leda, a complicated mammal, a person, becomes an alcoholic outcast among his avian kind. This book is full of such memories, sweet and sorrowing.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Teorema" (1968)

The film opens with an announcement: a rich industrialist is giving up his factory to his workers. We learn later that Paolo does so after being seduced by a handsome young man, who as a guest at his villa also seduced his teenage son and daughter, his wife and his maid. The young man, played by Terence Stamp, could be God or the devil, but the encounter with him changes every member of the bourgeois family.

The maid Emilia returns to the country, where she refuses to eat or drink, until two children cook a meal of roadside weeds for her. She is next seen by the villagers levitating miraculously above a house, before she is willingly buried alive, her tears feeding a puddle.

The son Pietro turns to painting, to recapture the ecstasy of the encounter, but he knows every artistic attempt is a failure and a fake. The mother Lucia picks up young men in her car, and suffers sexual disappointments. The daughter Odetta falls into a comatose state, clutching what appears to be an object given her by the visitor. After he has been seen cruising a male hustler at Milan's main train station, Paolo strips himself completely naked in public. He is next seen walking barefoot, as if in penance, over a barren landscape.

In delineating the different ways in which the family copes with the crisis, Pasolini lays bare the desperation and self-delusions of the bourgeosie: in Art, Sex, and Religion. The film does not depict people with much psychological realism. The drama is symbolic, a mode that turns almost emblematic in film, as does the deserted factory complex that frames the narrative.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Poetry Thin Air Interview on YouTube

Almost two years ago I was interviewed by George Spencer and shot for TV by Mitch Corber for the Poetry Thin Air Cable Show. I wrote about that experience here. The show was broadcast first on Manhattan Network TV, and then on the Brooklyn one. Miriam Stanley was the second interviewee on it.

Mitch has just uploaded the show on YouTube, and so now you can watch me whenever you like, reading poems from Payday Loans and Equal to the Earth, and sounding agonizingly slow. I made such weird facial expressions when reading and answering George, but the star is really my teeth. I guess that is how I look all the time, unbeknownst to me. This one is for the archive.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Cyril Wong's "Satori Blues"

Cyril's new chapbook-length poem records a yearning for spiritual truth and clarity. In less experienced hands, it could so easily turn hokey. It is, instead, a sensitive account of a whole-person response to Buddhist thinkers such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shunryu Suzuki, U. G. Krishnamurti and Alan Watts. I have only read Alan Watts, among these writers. He appears twice by name in Satori Blues, critical of the oversimplification of an Euclidean conception of the world, and critical of the hostile nihilism in Kerouac's version of Zen Buddhism. The poem tries to find its own open and gentle way.

The question driving it is, not surprisingly, that of love. Unable to possess the object of desire, love wounds itself by itself. The poem begins with lived truth, that "Love appears/ as nothing when we begin to know it,/ nothing that is not its opposite, or/ whatever opposites mean, in this case--/ coming and ebbing, a kiss and heartache." By the end, however, the poem arrives at a philosophical understanding of what "nothing" consists of. "Nothing prevents/ nothing from passing through./ Nothing, after all, to try; nothing,/ after all, to do." To understand that understanding, substitute "love" for "nothing." They have become interchangeable, without loss.

The poem not only orchestrates its meditation, but it also presents images of great power. The crack recurs throughout the poem, as the arse-crack and cracks "rocketing" up a wall. What is fault and fracture becomes the beginning of a break in ordinary, rational consciousness, the satori of the poem's title, as in my favorite passage of the book:

What we talk about when we talk about loss
are the catastrophes: walls collapsing
and the terrible flood. What we forget is what
we fail to detect: the line opening like an eye
from one end of a dam to another;
a startled look and the averted vision
at a wrong word at yet another wrong time.

And so the need to look steadily at what is easily overlooked. The universe is looking back at us through the crack.

The Way We Are Struck

Rob Mackenzie's blog directed me to this Poetry London review by Bill Herbert of four first books. The analysis of the books is very worth reading for itself, but the opening and closing paragraphs go beyond the moment of a review.
Poetry, in other words, is not announced by a striking subject, but revealed in the way we are struck.