Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rainbow Book Fair 2014

It was a very successful outing for Singapore Poetry at the Rainbow Book Fair yesterday. Sold lots of books and talked to lots of interesting people who stopped by the table. Michael Broder, representing A Midsummer's Night Press, was at the next table. Roxanne Hoffman and her Poets Wear Prada Press was just behind me. Paul Rozario, who was kind enough to help man the table for part of the day, discovered a talent for selling books by chatting people up! We gave out the bookmarks promoting the Singapore Literature Festival in New York in October. I enjoyed reading at the Poetry Salon organized by Nathaniel Siegel. Alex Goh and Christine Chia came for the reading; Sarah Sarai and Charlie Bondhus stayed after theirs. Bryan Borland and Matthew Hittinger came by the table. The only regret was that I was so busy that I could not find the time to look around the fair and say hello to friends.

Singapore Poetry with Costa Rican hat (photo by Alex Goh)

Reading at the poetry salon (photo by Christine Chia)

New friends, Peter LaBerge and Talin Tahajian

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

H. W. Brands's Biography of FDR

Written with a full appreciation of Roosevelt's accomplishments and a frank understanding of his flaws, Traitor to His Class is an engrossing read. The chief burden of the book is to explain how a man of Roosevelt's class and privilege could have become so firm a supporter of ordinary men and women, and so visionary an architect of American internationalism. Part I "Swimming to Health 1882 - 1928" covers the early period, right up to his becoming the Governor of New York. Part II "The Soul of the Nation 1929 - 1937" traces his path to the Presidency and the implementation of New Deal as a response to the Great Depression. The final part "The Fate of the World 1937 - 1945" examines America's entry into WWII and FDR's record as Commander-in-Chief. I was intrigued to learn that, in a moment of carelessness, FDR promised Winston Churchill to send American troops to defend Singapore. The Atlantic Charter was an important document supporting self-rule among the colonies. It explained why newly decolonized nations looked to American instead of the old imperialistic powers of Europe. The only child of an adoring mother, FDR was filled with a sense of his greatness from young. He died, praised by Churchill as "the greatest man" he had ever known.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Great Beauty

Before I forget, for I will:

Really liked Paolo Sorrentino's film "The Great Beauty" ("La grande bellezza") for its leisurely beauty and heartfelt melancholy. Toni Servillo was superb as Jep Gambardella, who launched himself into Rome's elite circles on the wings of a brilliant first novel, sustained his altitude on seductive charm and cutting wit, but could not write another novel because he did not find the great beauty, even after years and years of half-hearted searching. Bringing in the Saint at the end, a nun who had devoted her life to serving the poor in Africa, did not feel cheesy, but provided proper foil to a wasted life. Yet who can say the life is wasted? For if beauty comes in fragile flashes, all we can do is to catch it while we can. The soundtrack was magnificent.

"7 Virgins" ("7 vírgenes"), directed by Alberto Rodríguez, was not a great film by any standarrds, but it was very watchable. Tano, played by an engaging Juan José Ballesta, was given 48-hour leave from the juvenile reform center to attend his brother's funeral. He lived those hours with the devil-may-care insouciance of a teenager raised in the blue-collar district of southern Spain. By the end of his leave, however, his world has crumbled around him. The title is a reference to a superstition that if you light two candles before a mirror, you will see your future in the mirror.

The Paul Gauguin show at the MoMA was very informative. The prints and transfer drawings revealed an artist who worked and reworked motifs across a wide range of media. I did not know before that Gauguin's mother's family came from Peru. In fact, the artist spent his earliest years in Lima. His father died during the voyage from Paris, and so his mother, wearing traditional costumes, was his all-in-all. That explains, in part, his obsession with the "primitive" women of French Polynesia. His use of the long format in painting was influenced by temple frieze, in particular, those of Borobudur. The colors of the paintings were very strong and sensual. No wonder Matisse fell under their influence.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Thought of a Novelist

from an interview Philip Roth gave to Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at Svenska Dagbladet, for publication in Swedish translation in that newspaper and in its original English in the NYT Book Review:

Whoever looks for the writer's thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer's "thoughts" violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist. 
The thought of a novelist lies not in the remarks of his characters or even in their introspection but in the plight he has invented for his characters, in the juxtaposition of those characters, and in the lifelike ramifications of the ensemble they make--their density, their substantiality, their lived existence actualized in all its nuanced particulars, is in fact his thought metabolized. 
The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel's action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern--in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things--that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply "the arrangement of the parts," the "matter of size and order." The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Business of Self-Betrayal

from Marc Robinson's review of The Long Voyage: Selected letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915 - 1987, edited by Hans Bak:

After reading Malcolm Cowley's first collection of verse, Blue Juniata (1929), Conrad Aiken asked: "What do you think or feel which is secretly you? Shamefully you? Intoxicatingly you? Drunkenly or soberly or lyrically you?" In the poems, to Aiken's eye, "this doesn't come out", their creator having "avoided the final business of self-betrayal". 
"[Malcolm Cowley:] It's really easier to give your life to a cause than to hold out for a particular sentence that embodies your way of looking at life -- yet if you surrender on the wording of a sentence, and another sentence, pretty soon you find yourself living for the opposite cause to the one you had intended to die for." As a description of "self-betrayals" possible in style alone, this can hardly be bettered.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood"

Death is not the opposite of life but a part of it. This is what Toru Watanabe, the protagonist of the novel, learns from the suicide of his best friend Kizuki at the age of seventeen. Toru and Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko, joined by this incommunicable sadness, struggle in their different ways to live with the knowledge of death. The novel is a tender depiction of this struggle, its momentary successes, its relapses, its endurance. Naoko finally puts herself in a progressive mental health farm, Ami Hostel, in the hope of getting better. On a long bus ride to visit her, Toru passes through interminable cedar woods, broken only by small rural villages. The landscape of that bus ride becomes, very quietly, a metaphor for living with death.

The supporting cast is vividly drawn. Reiko, Naoko's older roommate at the farm, is a wise, loving guitar-playing, Malboro-smoking presence. Nagasawa, who lives in the same student dorm as Toru, treats life as a test of will, whether he is out looking for girls or learning Spanish from TV to embark on a high-flying career in the Foreign Ministry. Midori is the filth-talking student who finally brings Toru back to the side of life. One of the most memorable scenes in the novel happens when Toru accompanies Midori to visit her dying father in hospital. Looking at Toru eating hungrily a cucumber wrapped in nori and dipped in soya sauce, the father asks for some too. The crunchy freshness of cucumber is the taste of life. It is the taste for life.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Albek Duo and Poem

Debbie Chou invited me to a concert at Steinway Hall last night. The ornate building was put up in 1926, white marble from Italy, green marble from Greece. I was glad to see it before the company's move at the end of the year. The performers were the Albek Duo, twin sisters from Switzerland. Ambra Albek played the violin and viola, Fiona Albek the piano. They opened the program with pieces by American composer William Perry, who was present in the audience. I enjoyed very much their performance of Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor, Opus 45, (1886). Their musicianship shone through. They were lovely in person too, when we talked a little during the reception afterwards.

Wrote another haiku this morning. Not related to the concert last night.

I forgot
my heavy coat--
miss you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Postmodern American Poetry

I've been ploughing through the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, more out of a sense of obligation than anything. I am surprised, however, by the amount of pleasure I received. Sure, there were many things that I would not care to read again, but the poets that I would sue to know better were not a few.

I still think Charles Olson is over-rated. John Cage I read with anthropological interest rather than aesthetic delight. Robert Duncan's mysticism is too hand-wavy for me; I am more for Denise Levertov's "ecstatic Protestantism," as editor Paul Hoover puts it. "Illustrious Ancestors" and "Where Is the Angel?" bear re-reading. I am also drawn to Barbara Guest's lyricism. Her "Red Lilies" begins so practically: "Someone has remembered to dry the dishes;/they have taken the accident out of the stove," and ends with magical flight: "The paper folded like a napkin/other wings flew into the stone." Robert Creeley I find thin, despite of his musicality.

The New York School has weathered very well. They are fun to read. James Schuyler's "The Crystal Lithium" is a beautiful and convincing nature poem. "Letter to a Friend: Who Is Nancy Daum?" is terrific, as is "Korean Mums." Kenneth Koch is sharp and funny. Jack Spicer I find pretentious, but I did enjoy his re-writes of the tales of Arthur's knights, Gawain and Percival. Frank O'Hara is a joy. John Ashbery I don't get most of the time. He gives me the feeling that I have been had.

Larry Eigner's poetry is very spare, Japanese. He wrote what he observed from his wheelchair. Ed Dorn's "On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck" is very moving. Gregory Corso is a wild thing; witness "Last Night I Borrowed a Car." I have always liked Gary Snyder's "Riprap," and like here his homespun wisdom in "Hay for the Horses," "The Bath" and "Axe Handles." Amiri Baraka, who died this year, is all ideas.

I enjoyed Susan Howe's This That but the poems in this anthology, not as much. The extracts from Lyn Hejinian's My Life drift pleasantly but do not seize nor excite. Nothing to hold the attention from Joan Retallack to Wanda Coleman. Ron Silliman cannot forget that he is a critic even in his poetry. I got more out of re-reading Mei-mei Berssenbrugge than the first time.

The Language poets bore me to tears.

Bin Ramke's long poem "The Ruined World" is compelling. I'd like to read more of his work. I don't like Eileen Myle's way of breaking lines into one or two words. I enjoyed John Yau's cinematic poems, and was tickled to read his poem about Singlish called "ing Grish." Myung Mi Kim's poetry does nothing for me, does nothing to me, whereas Mark McMorris' does. I like the tone of intimacy in his Letters to Michael. Yes, he does talk about grammar and the torque of syntax, but his poems are one person speaking (or writing) or another: "The wound cannot close; language is a formal exit/is what exits from the wound it documents."

Of Kenneth Goldsmith and conceptual poetry, let me quote one avant-gardist against another. Drew Gardner, one of the "founders" of Flarf: "Conceptualism repeats gestures that were vetted and digested forty years ago in the art world and displays them in the poetry world virtually unchanged: it is a remake. Poetry is too out of it to notice. And thus Conceptualism hits an intellectual pitch. The intellectual pitch, it could be noted, of the art history professor" (in "Why Flarf Is Better Than Conceptualism").

I like what Elizabeth Willis wrote in her essay "The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric": "The language of progress tyrannizes poetry. . . . What's new is obsolete within seconds." Her poem "The Witch" is sexy, challenging and self-aware, permanent qualities of lyrical poetry. I hope she outlasts the noisy K. Silem Mohammad. Linh Dinh is another poet who turns his imagination to critical use. "Continuous Bullets Over Flattened Earth" is terrific, as are "Vocab Lab" and "Body Eats." They may sound didactic outwardly, but their inner voice is discovery.

And I certainly want to read more Eleni Sikelianos.

Christian Bök is one ingenious dude. Drew Gardner's Flarf poetry is good for a laugh, which is more than you can say for most of the poets in this anthology. "Chicks Dig War" is clever pastiche.

The Black Mountain poets have their Black Mountain college. The Language poets have their University of California, Berkeley and their SUNY-Buffalo. There is a coterie formed of the alumni of Brown University too. Now, every avant-garde must develop from a coterie, if only for mutual support and encouragement. But I prefer the coteries that are not based around institutions like universities and do not transmit their doctrines in a classroom, but are rather informal networks of friendships. Whether they are the New York School or the Flarf group, a ridiculous joie de vivre survives in their verse.