Tag Archives: vanessa place

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

Vanessa Place and the Archive

First, a couple of announcements, John Matthias and I have now completed the annotation of all seven sections of the first poem in the Trigons sequence and any feedback would be most gratefully received. Secondly the experiments in reading project has now acquired additional material on all three poems: ‘Night Office'; ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘The Odes to TL61P’. With regard to ‘The Anathemata’, I’m particularly grateful to Tom Goldpaugh for his support and contributions.

I think I’ve said before that. as a make of poems, I’m attracted to archives and in particular archival records of Bad Things that have occurred. I know that I’ve also expressed my admiration for Vanessa Place and the crucial work that she does. So, imagine my delight in coming across ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ on the radio-break site. This is a sound file which consists of the poet reading transcripts from conversations between various government agencies of Sept 11 2001 as the morning progressed. The most frequent conversations are between aircraft controllers and the other agencies. The reading lasts just over 90 minutes and is mesmerising.

I’m a tired old cynic and I know what happened and in what order it happened on that day, I’ve read senate reports and watched a number of documentaries so I didn’t expect this to tell me anything I didn’t know. After a few minutes I became transfixed because of the way in which another picture was being painted, a picture without a single viewpoint of a world that is confused, chaotic and more than a little scared. If there is a narrative it is that all the acronyms and numbers and command structures and all the military might in the world will now save you from a group of men with box cutters and imagination.

There are multiple confusions ranging from whether planes have been hijacked or not, in which direction and at what height a plane is flying, the fate of the crew on one of the planes. Place reads this mounting chaos in virtually expressionless speech with clarity and sustained stamina. The effect is to draw the listener into the heartbreaking conversations and to identify with the various voices as they try to make sense of the unfolding tragedy.

Poetry purists (and not-so purists) have many things to say about this kind of thing, that it doesn’t contain any original work, that is much more about form than substance, that all conceptualists are charlatans who are more interested in producing a single idea rather than a sustained and considered piece of work. I, however don’t have problem with the conceptual per se, my own bias lies in the direction of the confessional as well as P Larkin, but I’m saddened that most of it isn’t very good. This is especially unfortunate because it has the potential to mount a proper challenge to the over-lyricised state of things today.

I’m also not a fan of everything that Place doe, her “One” collaboration is both overly precious and underwhelming but, at her best, the work remains essential. Both ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Tragodia’ challenge the current poetic and depict in some detail, the forces of the state at work and the very many flaws therein.

Of course many would argue that this isn’t poetry and that is part of the ‘point’ because it can’t be anything else, ‘Transcripts’ makes its own demands- it uses one voice to read out the words of many and it must be viewed in the context of contemporary poem-making. This is not to suggest that it’s a foundational Ur-text marking the moment when the established order is overthrown but to demand that attention is paid to what it does and what it says.

In terms of subject matter, I’m reasonably ambiguous on 9/11. It was a magnificent thumb in the eye of imperialism and capital but nobody deserves to die in that way and it was organised by a small group of fundamentalist nutters (technical term) who ever since have received far more attention thn they deserve. It also gave the clapped out forces of imperialism to demonstrate their ineptitude and impotence in a number of sovereign states across the globe.

I’m also very aware that the above is many miles away from the American mainstream and I don’t listen to this reading in the same way that a US citizen would but I can be horrified (still) by the slowly dawning realisation that something very bad is unfolding, from the first calls from the flight crew to the muddled decisions to open fire on hijacked aircraft. This isn’t sensationalist, Place does not read any of the words of the victims as they occur in transcripts (and are all over the web) but she does read out what others say about them. One of the things that struck me whilst reading the second and third parts of Tragodia is the amount of numbers that the state use to keep control of its own data/instruments of power. This aspect is underlined by the constant reference to acronyms and numbers between the various civil servants and military personnel. Oddly, this is not something I took much notice of when I was involved in policy and procedure setting, but looking back (especially in child protection issues) it is how things were done.

A couple of years ago I was heavily involved in a poetic examination of the massacre commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday. Listening to Place reminded me that I still have the transcripts of military chatter on that day and am now about to compare and contrast….

In conclusion, ‘Full Audio Transcripts’ is another brilliantly defiant work by Vanessa Place that demands a response from all those who profess an interest in poetry and the poetic.

The Claudius App, being in a poem and a twitter challenge.

I’ve intended to write about Claudius App IV since it first appeared on the interweb. I enjoy writing about CA because it contains some of the best contemporary work currently being written and therefore deserves as wide a readership as possible. One of the reasons (I tell myself) for not writing about issue IV is the fact that my name is used in “the flesh called fwan” by Francis Crot, Idaho Pistols, Nat Raha and Verity Spott. Section 41 is:


In 'the scene' getting reviewed by John 
Armstrong means I can eat. He would hate
this. What Paterson fails to realise. It's
                                         supposed to be shite
                                  like coal (???)
A faggot slugabed I can't protect you with.
London wilts bye tranny lavic totter on
Ankle nodule St Vitus circa Sleeping
Beauty enchantress. In 'the scene' getting
reviewed by your ft inside me. Hobo fat.

Now it might be possible that this is referring to some other John Armstrong or an entirely fictional John Armstrong were it not for the fact that I was told I was in this poem by Verity Spott via the Twitter gizmo.

I’ll get back to this in a moment. What has prodded me into CA-related action is that my gmail account tells me I have received these two mentions on twitter: “@zackzee, Emily Dorman’s calling Bebrowed at bit.ly/1eGp2sx with texts on the “scariest poet on the planet” for you. Dare to blog?” and “@zackzee, @VanessaPlaceInc, be browed, be very browed” – both of which would seem to be some sort of challenge.

There is some background to this, as I recall I took a previous poem by Emily Dorman to task for not being very funny about Ms Place. I also had a bit of an anxiety-laden rant about Emily Dorman which was then referred to on the CA Facebook page. Obviously I’d like to reply to these two via twitter but it currently seems to be out of action. Obviously, I’m beginning to regret referring to Vanessa Place in this way because this one-liner does seem to keep on coming back at me, I’m much fonder of my pithy one liner on Caroline Bergvall.

Anyway, I am delighted to be mentioned by some of our brightest young poets and am equally pleased to be mentioned by the only poetry site that I pay attention to. It’s just that I’m not sure how best to respond.

It’s now time to address the smoke and mirrors problem. My first involvement in this came about by placing a forum on a disability-related information site. The idea was to promote the development of a community which could challenge societal and cultural attitudes towards those with a long-term health problem. This was about twelve years ago and was a mistake becuse people can pretend to be other people and can say things whilst pretending to be other people with the intention of creating chaos. This salutary lesson has remained lodged in my brain ever since. This has some relevance because I’d previously (foolishly) assumed that was a single human being but it transpires that this might not be the case and the whole Dorman persona may be an indulgent dig at a variety of different poetries. At which point I think I stop caring, a disinterest to that encountered when reading the first 500 lines of Marvell’s “Last Instructions”. In short, it’s all a bit sixth form.

With regard to “the flesh called fwan”, I don’t hate it but I’m not sure that I want to be thought of as a reviewer of poetry. I like to think that I write about my relationship with a poem or a poetry which allows me to be provisional, subjective and inconsistent, not the qualities that you want from a reviewer. I don’t write at length about work that I don’t like (with the exception of Sir Geoffrey Hill’s more recent material) and have this odd tendency to be very enthusiastic about the stuff that appeals to me. Essentially, I write about what interests me and am constantly surprised and gratified that others seem to enjoy the inside of my head. As for ‘the scene’, I’m not aware that there is one although my definition of a scene (free jazz, activist, arthouse) may well be hopelessly outdated. Having said that, the tone throughout seems reasonably playful so I’m not going to argue. Think I need to venture a guess that Idaho Pistols may also write under the name of Timothy Thornton and that Francis Crot and Jow Lindsay may be similarly intertwined.

We now come to the CA challenge and in particular the swipe at “Tragodia”. I’m taking the Dorman rant s a little tongue in cheek but also with a sense of indignation- “But Eliot didn’t publish his account books, nor Stevens his policies, nor Williams his prescriptions. Place repurposed her profession into poetry through a bare relabelling,…” This might be okay in an interestingly witty self-referential kind of way but you do need to do this stuff from a position of strength. There are many (many) things that just might be wrong with “Tragodia” but a ‘bare relabelling” isn’t one of them. Unlike most of the increasingly popular Kenny’s stuff, this trilogy needs to be read from covers to covers sequentially and should be judged (intentional(ish)) by what it says and how it re-adjusts many disparate frames at the same time. It can be criticised for its initial subject matter, for the quite deliberate selection of appeals and its main focus on genetic evidence but, by it’s nature, it can’t be castigated for the initial conceit unless (of course) we’re living in some kind of late modern utopia where the only standards are those set by Eliot, Stevens, Williams and the rest.

The odd thing is that I’d like a debate about “Tragodia”, I’d like someone to argue with my recently expressed view but this isn’t it.

I’d like to finish with the observation that there are many high-profile poets on both sides of the Atlantic that are drably mediocre. Perhaps Ms Dorman would like to cast her glance at those British dismalities that some of us know so well.

Vanessa Place’s Tragodia

Vanessa Place is the scariest poet on the planet. I know this must be true because I’m quoted to that effect on the back of the two paperbacks that I’ve just bought in order to complete my reading of the above trilogy. In addition one K Goldsmith is quoted with: “arguably the most challenging, complex and controversial literature being written today”; Rae Armantrout with Vanessa Place “is writing terminal poetry” and Stephanie Hochet calls Place “etrange et forte” and “n’est pas un femme banale”.

I’ve written in the past about Place and how essential she is for the future of poetry, I’ve also been critical of some of her material that Isn’t Very Good and entered into a debate as to whether or not she has killed poetry (she hasn’t). My admiration started with reading “Statement of Facts” which immediately impressed me as strategically the most important event in poetry for many years. I probably need to explain – I’m of the view that the Poetry Problem stems from the fact that it continues to run on some notion of the poetic that was already clapped out by the end of the 16th century. This has led to the belief that radical breaks/fissures are needed to challenge and undermine this state of affairs- the Tragodia trilogy is the least compromised and most coherent of the current batch of breaks.

The first part of the trilogy is “Statement of Facts” which uses court documents to narrate some of the assaults carried out by Mark Wayne Rathbun aka the ‘Belmont Shore Rapist”. This is followed by an account of Rathbun’s arrest together with what appears to be a detailed precis of the dna evidence presented at trial and the defence experts’ rebuttal of this.

The other two parts both have this preface:

All quotations and accounts in this book were taken directly from the trial transcripts of cases that Vanessa Place handled on appeal. All these transcripts and the appellate briefs filed in each case, are matters of public record. However, the names of the people herein, as well as other direct modes of identification, have been changed to protect their privacy.

Place has said that she has plagiarised herself in making Tragodia. We’ll come to that later – the second part is “Statement of the Case” which has 33 statements setting out the grounds of appeal against a range of convictions. The third is “Argument” which is 33 densely worded attempts to demonstrate why specific convictions should be reversed.

The eighteenth statement and the fifth argument relate to the Belmont Shore case and conviction and I’m going to use those to show why this material is so very important. Before doing this I need to admit to a couple of biases, I’m a fan of documentary poetry and especially that which has some kind of archival base. My own creative endeavours in the recent past have looked at Bloody Sunday and the Shipman Inquiry as sources of material for thinking bout evidence and the need to bear witness, to give voice to experience.

What follows doesn’t make easy or comfortable reading, the details are factually presented but graphic accounts of rape that most will find difficult to read. This is a brief extract:

On April 2, 2000, Francine J. was living alone on Marakita, in Long Beach; by 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., she had showered and gone to sleep, wearing an old short nightgown. As was her habit, Francine J. had locked all doors: she also had sticks behind the doors and windows except for the bathroom window, which she kept partially open for ventilation. Francine J. woke to find a hall light on which she never used, and then someone “pounced” on her. A gloved hand was put over her face, a finger into her mouth; Francine J. bit down hard. The glove felt rough, like a work glove. A man rolled up Francine J.’s nightgown and used it to cover her eyes and ears, tying it in the back, and putting her hands behind her. He told Francine J., “Do as I say and I won’t hurt you.” Francine J. said she would, and asked him please not to hurt her. The man asked Francine J. what her name was, and if she was alone; Francine J. told him her name, and said she had a friend who occasionally came in after midnight to sleep at the house. Francine J. lied about the friend. (RT D-35-D-39, D-49)

The man asked how long it had been since Francine J.’d been sexually active, she said it had been many years. The man put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina, removed his penis, and told Francine J. to put his penis in her mouth. As she did, she noticed the man had a “metal ring” around his penis. At some point, the man took his penis from Francine J.’s mouth and put it back into her vagina; periodically, he had her change positions from her back to her side, removing his penis to do so. Francine J. didn’t remember how many times this happened, though it was more than twice. The man told Francine J. to lie face down; Francine J. became worried he would anally penetrate her, and asked him not to, because she had hemorrhoids. He did not. The man had Francine J. orally copulate him again. Francine J. could not recall if she orally copulated him two or three times. During the encounter, the man left and went to the bathroom more than once. After the second oral copulation, he went to the bathroom, returned, and put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina again. At some point, Francine J. asked the man for a drink of water; he gave her the bottle she kept on her bed stand. Francine J. could not remember if the man touched her breasts. Francine J. was in a lot of pain as the attack happened shortly before she had hip replacement surgery; she told the man about her discomfort, and he put a pillow on the night stand to support her leg. (RT D-39-D-42, D-46-D-49)

After a while, Francine J. told the man she was in a great deal of pain; he asked her for five more minutes, and after five minutes, left, telling her not to move for twenty minutes. She didn’t hear him, and he repeated the instruction. About ten minutes later, Francine J. went into her dining room, found the sliding glass door open, then called the emergency number. (RT D-44-D-45) The police arrived, and took Francine J. to be examined by a forensic nurse specialist. Francine J. had bruises on her body, and one breast was reddened, in addition to “pinpoint” bruises and multiple tears around her labia and outside her genitalia. Swabs were taken from Francine J.’s right shoulder, left breast, right breast and mouth, transported to the police station and then to the crime laboratory; a reference swab was taken at a subsequent date and transported to the crime lab. (RT D-45, 1355-1358, 1411-1412, 1437-1439, 1441, 1444-1445)

During the assault, Francine J.’s nightgown periodically “slipped a little” so she would catch “glimpses” of her assailant’s face. The man’s hair was either dark blonde or light brown, “loose curls” on top and short on the sides, a “neat haircut.” She thought his eyes slanted a little on the outside, and noted he had “quite a bit” of body hair, but not dark or black body hair. Francine J. told police he had a medium build, “not a real big heavy guy”; she testified he seemed “not real tall,” with more of a slender build. The room was lit by a light from outside Francine J.’s bedroom window, the small nightlight in the base of her night stand lamp, at one point, the light from the television after the man asked Francine J. to turn it on. Francine J. said her attacker did not look dark, and described him to police as white. (RT D-43-D-44, D-49-D-53, 1440).

On May 1, 2000, Francine J. called Detective Kriskovic and told her she’d received a telephone call from a man; after the caller hung up, Francine J. recognized his voice as her attacker’s. Francine J. testified she wasn’t “100 percent sure” it was the same man, but it was a voice that was similar. (RT D-57-D-58)

“Statement of Facts” contains many of these accounts and the cumulative effect of reading these is disturbing at quite a deep level. These are then followed by a detailed record of Rathbun’s interrogation:

The interrogation resumed the next morning at 9:45 a.m.; appellant was asked if he remembered his rights, appellant said he did, and agreed to continue. Kriskovic told appellant he would be charged with all the DNA cases and, if convicted, would face a long prison term, possibly life. Appellant said he wished none of it had happened, and that he knew what he was doing was wrong when he was doing it; Kriskovic asked him what he meant by that, appellant said wasn’t it obvious he was making all of the bad decisions and wrong choices. Kriskovic asked if raping women was wrong; appellant said he knew it was wrong. Kriskovic asked if doing these things was contrary to the way his mother had raised him; appellant said yes. Kriskovic asked how appellant prepared himself when he entered his victims’ homes; appellant said sometimes he would enter the home, then undress, and would usually ask the victims to give him ten minutes to dress inside the house and leave. Appellant said he never stole anything from his victims. (RT 1241-1243, 1282, 1289) Kriskovic asked appellant about the attack on Rosalie M.: appellant said a friend named Donnovan Seeks or Sikes dropped him off near the Hilton in Huntington Beach, where he planned to meet other friends. Instead, appellant walked into the nearby trailer park, and broke into Rosalie M.’s trailer through her window; Rosalie M.’s trailer was located near the rear of the park. (RT 1244-1245)

According to Kriskovic, when questioned about the Gloria C. attack, appellant said it was possible he’d taken some of the louvered panes from her kitchen window, but if he did, it was not because offingerprints. When asked about the attack on Francine J., appellant said he had never worn a “cock ring.” When asked if he orally copulated his victims, appellant said he hadn’t; when asked if he’d forced his victims to orally copulate him, appellant said he hadn’t; later, appellant said maybe he had. He then indicated he had worn a cock ring once, and that the ring had been given him by an acquaintance. When asked if he’d ever identified himself to his victims, appellant said he didn’t remember, asked what names the victims recalled, then denied identifying himself as Max or Tito to any of the victims. (RT 1244-1246, 1309-1310).

This is followed by the dna evidence presented by different experts. Each of the experts also has a paragraph outlining his or her credentials in this field. This is from one expert’s work:

According to Fedor’s analysis, appellant’s standard genetic profile at the thirteen tested loci included, at the D3S1358 marker, 16 and 17 alleles, at the VWA marker, a 14, 16, and at D18S51, 14, 14. (RT 1463-1466) As retested, Dorothy C.’s breast swab was a mixture: a mixture can be discerned if there are more than two genetic traits at any one genetic marker.28 The presence of a Y chromosome indicated the other donor was a male; once Dorothy C.’s profile was deemed the minor donor, due to the relative degree of intensity, the remainder created the major donor profile. The chance a man unrelated to appellant could have been the major donor was one in forty-seven sextillion. There are six billion people on earth. (RT 1467-1471, 1569-1570)

Retesting the Barbara B. sample, Fedor determined the DNA profile from the sperm cells taken from the right buttocks swab matched appellant’s; the chance of a coincidental match was one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. Barbara B.’s right and left breast swabs also included appellant’s profile, with the same one in eight hundred forty-four septillion chance of a coincidental match. Appellant’s random match probability on Barbara B.’s external genital swab was one in seven trillion. Fedor assumed two contributors to the mix. (RT 1471-1475, 1491, 1503, 1605-1607-1608) The Marion J. breast swab was a mixture; appellant’s random match probability was one in nine septillion. The Marion J. external genital sample did not test positive for male DNA, and there was foreign female DNA in the sample: at the
VWA marker, Marion J. was a 14, 18, and the mixture shows a 14, 18 and a 16, 23. At D21S11, Marion J. was 29, 32.2; there was also 31.2 and 30. Sometimes, with some ethnicities, the Y chromosome does not amplify properly. (RT 1475-1477, 1597-1601) Appellant’s random match probability for a portion of the prepared DNA from the fecal material taken from Carol R.’s window was one in eight hundred forty five septillion, and his match for another portion one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. (RT 1477-1479, 1491-1492, 1502-1503, 1514-1515) The Esther R. nipple swab was a mixture, Esther R.’s DNA was subtracted, and the remaining profile matched to appellant with a one in nine septillion probability ratio. At VWA on Esther R.’s external genital swab, there was a 23 marker which belonged to neither appellant (14, 16) nor Esther R. (14, 15): the sample does not contain sperm, and the male components appear in the mixture to a lesser degree than the female: Fedor could not determine whether the male donor left the 23 allele, or how many people contributed to the mixture. Fedor still matched appellant to the external genital swab sample at a probability of one in nine septillion. (RT 1479-1482) In both the Marion J. and Esther R. genital swabs, there were
unaccounted-for 16, 23 alleles at VWA. (RT 1601-1603)

I first read ‘Statement of Facts’ a couple of years ago and immediately understood that it is radically different from the usual conceptual material because of its absolute refusal to compromise with accepted notions of the poetic but also because of the ‘breadth’ of the content. There isn’t any compromise because the material itself isn’t in any way fiddled about with, dressed up nor adjusted in the name of literature / poetry. It isn’t difficult to understand the language until we get some bits of the dn testing, the details of the assaults are absolutely explicit and relentless – in the same way that Bolano’s 2066 catalogues the torture and murder of women in northern Mexico – in recognition that the rejection of ‘style’ is the only way to deal adequately with some events.

It’s easy to get carried away by the impact of the assaults in all their terrible detail but what might be more relevant is the progressive presentation of evidence and what various parties might wish to do with it. We start with the victims’ accounts and the evidence collected/gathered at the time and then move on to what the defendant is alleged to have said during the police interrogation and then on to multiple aspects of the allele problem and what dna might have to say about the ‘truth’.

In the case of the Belmont Shore Rapist the nature of confession as witness is the focal point of both the statement setting out the grounds of appeal and the argument against conviction. The appellant’s counsel argue that the courts refusal to admit expert testimony with regard to false confessions denied Rathbun a fair trial. This is the second paragraph of the grounds:

Pretrial, the court denied two defense requests to appoint an expert for purposes of presenting expert testimony on the phenomenon of false confessions, finding the evidence was inadmissible under People v Kelly (1976) 17 Cal.3d 24, inadmissible as expert testimony, irrelevant as to the facts of appellant’s case, and inadmissible pursuant to Evidence Code section 352.(CT 375-410, 412, 483-553; RT C-1, 385-395, 402-503, 834-835; Ex Parte Motion RT 1-7) The court denied defense request for discovery of DNA evidence relating to uncharged incidents, finding such incidents inherently irrelevant. (CT 648-683; RT C-9-C-12, 69-75). The court granted the State’s motion to exclude evidence of third party culpability. (CT 341-345, 714-738; RT699-708) Pursuant to People v Smith (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 646, the court ruled evidence of mixed source sample testing would be admitted, admissible under the third prong of People v Kelly, supra 17 Cal.3d24, and under a separate admissibility challenge based on
People v Pizarro
2003 110 Cal.App.4th 530 (CT 739-788, 804=808; RT37-43, 47-58, 61-69, 76-142, 151-196, 200-260, 268-301, 334-338)

There are a further three paragraphs highlighting different aspects of the case, these are followed by a list of the 64 charges that Rathbun was convicted of and the sentence that he received for each. He was sentenced to a total of 1040 years, plus 10 life terms. The act of testifying in criminal cases is done in front of and facillitated by the state and this process is surrounded by all kinds of documented paraphernalia which are used and referred to so as to underpin what we think of as the ‘rule of law’. One of the many (many) issues raised in my mind by ‘Tragodia’ is the over-abundance of references and the names given to these references as if to add further credibility to the criminal justice system and that this may be an example of what Prynne means when he talks about how complicit language is in oppression.

Before we go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m of the view that Rathbun was guilty of these crimes and that it would have been an absolute travesty if he had been released on appeal. This is despite the fact that the behaviour of the police appears to have been extremely inept, Rathbun was subjected to six hours of questioning but only the sixth was taped. There is a marked difference between the full and frank confession described in the officers’ notes of the first five hours and the monosyllabic answers that Rathbun gave on the tape. He was told that he could speak to his mother (he was concerned that the media would contact her before he could tell her what was going on) only after the interrogation had been completed. I also think that the appeal is clutching at straws with regard to expert evidence on false confessions, not because the phenomenon is unlikely but because there is only one documented ‘version’ of the first five hours. Place presents the argument for appeal in its entirety – this is a brief extract of the part dealing with false confessions:

In People v Page, supra, 2 Cal.App.4th 184, expert testimony had been allowed on general factors which might influence somebody to falsely confess, examples of those factors, and evidence of relevant psychological experiments in the field; the trial court excluded opinion evidence on reliability of defendant’s confession, though counsel was able to argue application of the expert testimony to that confession. The First District found no constitutional violation in the exclusion because this “marginally curtailed” testimony did not deprive defendant of the ability to present evidence on the circumstances of his interrogation, ‘merely affected the way the defense could link the theories presented by the expert to the evidence introduced at trial. It did not prevent it from making that connection” (Id., at p.187.) There was no abuse of discretion under 801 because there had been no “wholesale” exclusion, citing People v McDonald (1984) Cal.3d 351, 370-371, the Page court reiterated that expert testimony is permitted where the testimony does not seek to “take over the jury’s task of judging credibility….does not tell the jury that any particular witness is or is not truthful……, “but rather informs the jury of factors that might affect the issue of credibility” “in a typical case and to the extent that it my refer to the particular circumstances” of the present case, may be limited to explaining “the potential effects of those circumstances….” People v Page, supra, 2Cal app 4th at p.188, original emphasis.)

So, why is this so important? Firstly it shows how startling work can be made without the usual poetic window dressing, secondly it demonstrates that there re other ways to say Really Big Things and that truly ‘open’ texts like this have just as much power to move and evoke as what is considered to be great poetry.

I think I need to make it clear that the primary importance of ‘Tragodia’ relates to strategy, given that there is a kind of tiredness in the overpoeticised material that is what most people consider to be contemporary poetry – this represents the kind of ‘jolt’ that may cause the ruptures of change that are needed.

Conceptualist constraint and the death of poetry

I was going to write a long but considered piece about why I’m against Oulipo-style constraint, using ‘One’ (written by Blake Butler and Vanessa Place and ‘assembled’ by Christopher Higgs as an up to date example of why these things don’t work most of the time.

Then I realised (belatedly) that the poetic form is about constraint, that even ‘free’ verse is constrained by what it isn’t, and that it is these constraints that separate poetry from prose. So, I’m now trying to work out what it is that I dislike and, hopefully, why.

I also need to acknowledge that my own work is acquiring more and more of a conceptual tinge although I’m currently trying to think of this as more documentary and archival. I also need to confess to thinking about doing some constrained film narrative-related stuff on Twitter that has nothing to do with the 147 constraint.

This is further complicated by the fact that I don’t share the purist disdain for all things conceptual which I see as sentimental yet I find some kinds of constraint objectionable. I had thought that this disdain was due to a suspicion of the overly clever or complex which can reduce the worth/value of the ‘result’. Then I recalled the conceit for Nathan Austin’s ‘Survey Says! which is:

Austin alphabetized contestants’ responses to the television game show Family Feud. All of the answers from a five-week run in 2005 and another three weeks in 2008 were arranged according to the second letter of the first word of the phrase, providing the same arbitrary structuring order as many other assemblages of found texts but without the immediately palpable sense of predictable progression that conventional alphabetization provides.

And this is from the work itself:

They save their marriage certifi cate. They save their wedding ring. They say their prayers. They shave it all off. They simply don’t like it? They soak their feet. they step on them. They take a shower when they wake up from a nap. They talk on their cell phone. They twiddle them. They use room spray, or air freshener. They use wolves—wolf. They walk out; they cry; they get popcorn; they go to the bathroom; they leave their seat—no! they get refreshments. They want the temperature to go up.
They wash their hair. They wash their hands. They worry about losing their hair. Oh, golf. Chicago. Chicken. Chicken fingers. Chicken noodle. Chicken of the sea. Chickens fly. Chiffon. Chihuahua. Philadelphia. Children’s education. China. China. China. Think. Chips. Chips. Chips. Thirteen. Three or four, at least. Thirteen. Thirty days. This isn’t me, but: make love. + is might be a little inappropriate, but . . . the sex. This time, we’re going to try cluck. Oh no! I hold onto my emotions. Phone number. Shop. Shopping with his lady. A horse—a workhorse.

This isn’t bad in that it ‘works’ as a conceit and the result is sufficiently interesting, in a banal kind of way, to hold my interest for longer than 30 seconds or so but it isn’t good enough to merit any kind of serious attention and I’m deeply suspicious of any intro/apologia that contains a phrase as inept as ‘the immediately palpable sense of immediate progression’.

I think this leads me to the view that good constraint can be very, very good indeed- Both Simon Jarvis and Kenneth Goldsmith spring to mind from opposite ends of the ‘lit’ spectrum as writers who exemplify the best results of constraint whereas the Butler / Place / Higgs effort demonstrates its weaknesses.

I now need to have a bit of a digression on the death of poetry. Last summer I wrote an incisive and reasoned piece which took Vanessa Place to task for her claim that she had killed poetry. There has now appeared on the web this short film which purports to show Vanessa in the act of killing poetry. This may or may not be a riposte to my riposte- the page includes my (real) name as part of the intro- but I think I need to gently point out again that poetry, if it dies at all, won’t die this way whether at the hand of Vanessa Place or anyone else and the now enacted claim simply isn’t worthy of her and is disappointing because most of the time she is more astute than anyone else currently writing. End of short digression which has neatly avoided the Spenser plan for Irish poetry analogy- this would have made it much longer.

I’m still of the view that the problem with poetry is the poetic and that we need to ditch this pervasive lyricism but I think I still cling to some equally sentimental view of poetry being somehow free and inspired. I think I now what to make a distinction between constraint and gimmick. To my mind Raymond Roussel’s ‘New Impression’s of Africa’ is a gimmick because the constraint renders the work unreadable, George Perec’s two lipograms just seem cleverly silly.

In his introduction to ‘One’ Christopher Higgs lists the constraints given to both Butler and Place:

  1. First Person;
  2. Present tense;
  3. Compose – 40-60 pages;
  4. Because I want to avoid prefabricated cohesion, while at the same time I feel the need to offer a framework within which to play, I’ll suggest that you think in terms of three movements: Discovery-Secrecy-Escape. These need not be sequential, in other words feel free to think in terms of Escape-Discovery-Secrecy, or whatever arrangements of those you want. My hope is that by suggesting these three specific movements it will give you helpful boundary demarcations, and also it will allow me to locate common vector points at which I might establish pivots for the final construction.

Higgs goes on to say that he wanted Butler to focus on external perspectives and Place to focus on those from within. The idea was that Higgs would then put the two offerings together in a way that ‘something magical might be achieved’. I’m now going to lightly skip over the dismal quality of Higgs’ prose and get to a sample of this magical thing:

Now the crack of guns I became in me come back washing and lick all up the center of my guts giving shape by wet of being and tongue definition so I can hurl. Throw both my hard arms towards the over-forehead, which Corrections has already appended with new screaming bulbs, the colours of my thoughts enplasmed with them, hulking as an infant at a thrall.

In the blank of drums in my new standing I hear a shrieking and with my nose I turn around inside the smell of these years already pressed upon us stitching up my nostrils and pinching in crafty lines of neon ants. My head’s weight rotates on an axis that descends into my tummy, tucked with the nothing in kaput. No more blood and no more cellmake, no more doors or potions.

Maybe it’s me but this is about as unmagical as it gets which is a pity because it’s clearly trying very hard indeed but I’m afraid that crafty line of neon ants gives the game away- the ambition and effort all too often slide into facile cliche. Unfortunately ‘One’ appears to be another example where the constraints are given too much emphasis at the expense of the content

Is poetry dead and did Vanessa Place kill it or is it merely on the brink?

Here’s a confession, since Harriet started sending me traffic I’ve been paying far more attention than normal to poetry debates in North America. Two things have caught my eye recently, the first being ‘Poetry on the Brink’ by Marjorie Perloff in the Boston Review and the second being ‘Poetry is Dead, I killed it’ by Vanessa Place on Harriet.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed position on these matters is reasonably straightforward:

  • Vanessa Place can do no wrong and is always strategically correct;
  • poetry is far too poetic for its own good;
  • conceptual poetry is not the answer to the poetry problem;
  • whatever she might say, Vanessa Place is not a conceptualist;
  • creative writing cannot and should not be taught;

I regret to say that the first of these may be up for revision but I think I need to turn to the Perloff piece which is very grown up and thought through and has far too many words. I’d also like to make the rather obvious point that you don’t (ever) do long headers in very big fonts in a different colour. “We have witnessed a return to the short lyric that depends for its effect on the recycling of earlier poetic material” is too long, too complex and dull for this kind of eager treatment.

Perloff’s survey of the nature of this particular brink is written from the perspective of a custodian rather than a user and makes some pertinent observations, the main one being that quality does not increase in lock step with quantity. There is a debate to be had about the ‘market’ for creative writing courses and how this functions just as there is a need for custodians to know what it is they want but Perloff manages to avoid this with her extended list of platitudes. A glance at the response thread gives a clearer demonstration of what might be wrong than the article itself.

Perloff also manages to lump Place, Goldsmith and Bergvall into the same very short and dismissive paragraph. This is the sort of error that makes me quite cross. I’ve said before that I do want to be Caroline Bergvall so I might be a bit biased but anybody who has bothered to read any of the work of these three will know that they don’t ‘fit’ together, they are doing different things in completely different ways and their relationship to the ‘C’ word is really rather complex.

Having waded my way through all of the words that Perloff has put together, I’m not clear as to what poetry might be on the brink of nor what we ought to do about this apparently quite bad thing. She does try to make something of Pound’s ‘make it new’ but omits to mention that the new was/is nothing without the irascible.

Vanessa Place’s piece is thankfully much shorter and has a proper header and says this:

But if we can agree that we may function critically not from the conceit of extramural critique, which is essentially a postmodern argument, but rather from a relational perspective, which is the more conceptualist approach, we can avoid the temptation to fall into the sweet satisfactions of self—including a sorrowful self that has seen it all before. The best minds of my generation are servile, but it is service with a purpose. We take it and dish it out and leave its rumination to other minds. For, as Marjorie Perloff argues, the genius of conceptualism is in the plating.

Which is obviously correct and needs stating and restating but is only one variation on the ‘c’ word repertoire. For readers of Harriet however this could probably have done with a bit more flesh on the bone:

Wherein I slap my name on whatever comes to mind and call it poetry and yet it is poetry, and, too, as Drucker rightly notes, if I return it to its usual habitus (the appellate court, the news station), its “poetic elements lose their defining identity quickly enough.” Thus my readymade is also a reverse readymade, and critique proves not so much a matter of contemporary segregation but of an intellectual encounter which may be properly rigorous and properly ahistorical because Kant’s a prioris no longer apply.

This is an accurate precis of what the Place Project might be about but you do need to know at least some of the work and (I imagine) most would need some evidence for the irrelevance of those a prioris. I may be wrong but it seems to me that Harriet might be read by more than those that have already got the ‘c’ message and that this faux defiance might not be the best way to fight the fight- and it is a fight that needs to be fought.

Now we come to the caveats, the text doesn’t live up to its header, which is almost as bad as Perloff’s abuse of headers- if you’re going to maintain your deserved reputation as the scariest woman in literature then you’d better come up with something more witheringly vicious than this. Let’s be clear, Vanessa Place scares me and I’m not easily scared and this was a missed opportunity to scare and convert a lot more people.

The second quibble is a bit more serious, I’m of the view that endings are quite important and that they tend to leave an impression. Place’s final paragraph tries to do far too many things and the last two sentences are just inept because it doesn’t say anything at all and the ‘boring’ conceit isn’t good enough. So, I feel a little bit let down that the only person on the planet who seems to have a handle on this stuff seems to have blown her place in the sun, at least on this particular occasion.

Whilst poetry eschatology is always a fun game to play, it’s never more than a game. Poetry goes through all kinds of phases and transmutations but (whatever the crisis) it doesn’t die, it might not be what we want or what we feel that we deserve but it doesn’t die nor does it get anywhere near a brink….

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.