31 mar 2009

Work that makes an impact in the field, any field, is very difficult to accomplish. Even to make even "a significant contribution," as the cliché goes, can be quite difficult. Let's break this down a little bit.

"Work that makes an impact" is work that is widely quoted, responded to. The closest I've come is with my article "The Avant-Garde and Its Discontents." The Lorca book may have some impact. We'll have to wait and see.

"A significant contribution to the field" is work that is cited once in a while, that you would recommend to graduate students studying up on this particular sub-field.

The best way of having an impact is to do something that seems *obvious* in retrospect. In other words, something that the reader should have thought of doing himself. A major new statement about a canonical author can accomplish this. If it is good, the first book about an author who should be canonical but is not yet (Perloff's Frank O'Hara) will make an impact. A book that puts various things together and redefines a field, like Doris Sommer's Foundational Fictions, which approached the 19th century Latin American novel through the lens of nationalism, is influential in this way, creating a paradigm that others have repeated. You don't get as much credit for writing a book that interprets a few more Lat Am novels using this same paradigm.

I've written things I thought should have made an impact, but didn't. Quality is not enough: sadly, other people have to actually care about what you are writing about. If no one else is writing on the problems with which you are occupied, there will be nobody to cite your work, to argue with your conclusions.

Having an impact will mean: (1) Others will have to cite you, even if they disagree. (2) The critical language others use will be one defined, in part, by you. (3) Your work will be a model or paradigm, or offer models and paradigms.

27 mar 2009

Here's something about my book from the U of Chicago publicity blog.

20 mar 2009

What is the passive voice really about? We might say it's about agency. When the agent is unknown, implicit from the context, or de-emphasized, the passive voice might be preferable:

"He was arrested nine times before the age of twenty."

"I've been shot!"

"My house was destroyed by hurricane Katrina."

These sentences will usually be preferable to their active forms. "The police arrested him nine times..." "A bullet hit me..." "Hurricane Katrina destroyed my house."

We might also think of the passive voice as describing what happened to the subject. In other words, "I've been shot" answers the question, "what happened to me," whereas "the bullet hit me" seems to be an answer to the question "what did the bullet do?" So what the passive voice is really about is perspective. Peter Parker was bitten by a spider, because the story is about Peter Parker. A spider biting PP would make the story about the spider.

Note too that these sentences can be vivid: "I've been shot!" is the reactions of someone who's been shot. "Somebody shot me" sounds like a periphrasis. With effective uses of the passive, nobody will complain about a lack of immediacy.

Notice that the passive voice is not invariably vague or evasive about agency. It can even make agency emphatic. "Yes, you were bitten by a dog, but I was bitten by a hyena." With the "He was arrested..." example, anyone would understand that it was the police, so there is no real evasion there. If you recast a passive sentence in the active, and come up with a word like "people" or "somebody," you know the reason why it was put in the passive voice in the first place.

Composition classes aim to enable students to write in an academic style and those succeed in college. These same classes often discourage the passive voice; yet academics themselves, especially social scientists and real scientists, love to use the passive voice. Students who write with a lot of passive verbs do so because they are emulating academic writing. They may be doing so ineptly, but that is what they are doing. The answer is not to discourage the passive voice, but to demonstrate its multiple uses.

17 mar 2009

The actual, physical book came today. Only one copy, but the ink still smells fresh. I'll get my other author copies in a few weeks. It was really a pleasure to work with the University of Chicago Press. To get the book exactly a year after delivery of the manuscript on my part is astoundingly quick. I don't even feel that sense of let-down, that anti-climax that usually accompanies the arrival of the book itself. Quite the contrary. If you want to write a review for some MAJOR publication, let me know and I'll tell you how to request a review copy.

I'm otherwise spending spring break doing page proofs and index for that other book. I hope that too will be anti-anti-climactic.

10 mar 2009

What do you think of my cover?
I got the official letter from the Provost yesterday approving my promotion to Full Professor. The Chancellor still has to sign off on it but I'm assuming that's more or less pro forma. In April my two books are coming out (maybe there's a connection here?) Things are looking very good, in other words. My only wish now is for a vacation. I haven't really taken more than two or three consecutive days off since August of 07.

[Update: now it's official. I got a second letter indicating the chancellor's decision.]
(16) I should mention too the prose I have read that contributed to my poetic education. I always read fiction voraciously until a certain point when the intensity and obsessiveness of reading poetry led me to read less, and more selectively, and even to go whole months or even six-month periods sometimes without reading a novel. As Cervantes said of himself, I would read the "los papeles rotos de la calle." I dislike having not read something that someone I know has read, or not having read all of novelist's work when I consider myself a fan. Needless to say, I am more conscious of the enormous gaps in my reading than of how much I have read. As a kid I would read certain novels over and over: Catch 22, The Lord of the Rings, and Robert Penn Warren's The Cave. I never liked RPW's poetry much, but I did love this novel. I've read the Quijote three or four times as well.

As I noted earlier, nobody who's not already fallen in love with poetry has even read 20 books of poetry. Kids who love to read, though, will go through dozens of novels a year. It's good, too, that kids are less discriminating, because that allows for a critical mass of reading. I read every novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth that came out in the mid-seventies, along with every short-story in the New Yorker. I've read every novel written by Henry Green. One summer I read thousands of pages of Galdós. Before grad school, wanting to be a Latin Americanist but never having taken a course in 20th century novel, I read numerous novels by Puig, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, Rulfo.

Novelists, more than poets really, are the guardians of the literary language. Poetry is too eccentric, too much of a violation of other uses of language, to fulfill this function. Usually, specialists in poetry have also read novels in some quantity, assuming that they were kids who were just reading all the time, like me. The converse, however, is less true. I know very literate people who see poetry as a dark alley in a deserted neighborhood that they may have glanced into a few times.

9 mar 2009

I'm correcting page proofs and compiling an index for my other book, the one that's not on Lorca and took me about four times longer to write. I'm thinking that one will be overshadowed by my Lorca book in some respects, yet be read more by those in my own field-- all 15 of them. I think this other book is excellent, though in a quite different way. It cannot match the fire power or sheer entertainment value of the Lorca project. I'm wondering whether it's such a great idea that they are coming out at the same time, since I myself am tending to diminish the achievement of that other book, which is actually going to be hugely influential on at least a third of those 15 people.

8 mar 2009


*Susan Howe. Singularities. 1990. 70 pp.

I found some of the prose in this book more compelling that the verse.

*Blanca Andreu. Báculo de Babel. 1986. 53 pp.

The follow-up to De una niña de provincias . Not quite as impressive.

7 mar 2009


*Calvino. Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore. 1979. 263 pp.

I finally got through this in the original. My reading of Bolaño and Coolidge kept me from it for a while. It seems very much of its time, with reader-response criticism sweeping through American universities at around the same time.

If you haven't read it I suggest you do. (In whatever language you want.) It is really the compleat treatise on the act of reading in relation to every kind of social institution that impacts on it. Publication, translation, scholarship, literary theory, censorship, politics.

On this reading I enjoyed the 10 first chapters of novels more than the in-between chapter that Calvino uses to get from one to the next. That interstitial material seemed too cute in some ways.

*Clark Coolidge. The Rova Improvistations.. 1994. 199 pp.

I've been working my way through this. I'm satisfied with many shorter poems, but I feel the impulse to garrulousness has taken over. I'll keep the first 100 pages.

Luisa Castro. De mí haré una estatua ecuestre. 1997. 81 pp.

While Castro is (was) a good poet, this book is kind of a dud. I re-read it last night after several years of not looking at it. Only a poem about finding some children's socks from some other family in the laundry really held my interest.

*Henry Gould. Island Road.. 2005. No page numbers.

I read this book while I was proctoring the M.A. exam this morning. It contains 99 numbered poems divided into five sections. Gould satisfies me often on the level of the phrase and line, also, frequently, on the level of the short poem. I'm less sure of his larger structures. I made no concerted effort to connect the poems with one another, although Shakespeare's sonnet "That year in me ..." recurs throughout the first section.

I liked the poem for Chet Baker.

There's an autodidact or amateur quality in this writing. Not in the bad sense; I mean the sense of someone cultivating his own garden. All Island roads do lead to the sea, as Henry reminds us. That aphorism can be understood on many levels.

*Blanca Andreu. De una niña de provincias que se vino a vivir en un Chagall. 1980. 1983. 64 pp.

This was a landmark book for its day. The very young Blanca Andreu, perhaps the "girl from the provinces who ended up living in a Chagall paper," wrote in a quasi-surrealistic style.
Literary theory jokes:

The Duke English department--a fractious group of individuals united only by their common hatred for literature.

Derrida and Foucault walk into a bar... [That one needs a little work still]

A guy is rushing down the street in NYC with a violin case near the CUNY Graduate Center. He stops to ask someone for directions. "Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?" "Theory."

Derrida, Foucault, and a hippy are in an airplane. They need to bail out but there are only two parachutes for the three of them. Foucault grabs one and says 'Knowledge is power" and jumps out. Derrida turn to the hippy and says: What shall we do? The hippy say not to worry, because "Foucault just took my backpack."

6 mar 2009

This just seems "off" to me. It's a list of 40 contemporary American writers who have had the most influence on Ron Silliman. For me a profound influence is profound, discernible in the writing itself, or somthing that actually makes a difference that could be defined. Say someone wrote a different way after reading a particular poet. Much as I like Ron's poetry, it is simply not that multi-dimensional, despite its length. It does one or two things well. Or even, for the sake of argument, let's say it does a half-dozen things. The sheer number of names on this list precludes the average influence (say the 40th most profound influence out of 80) from being very profound at all. Given that this is just the list of women and more than half of his profound influences are probably in the masculine gender. it's like saying that someone is your 80th best friend. Such a diluted concept becomes virtually meaningless.

I'm also assuming that not all writers we like and admire will actually have any real lasting influence on us. I've written a book on Lorca but I can't say that I've been influenced by Lorca. (Ojalá que no fuera así, although I generally think of being influenced by Lorca as a bad thing.) For me, the ratio is something like one in fifty. So even assuming Ron is more of a sponge, soaking up influences right and left, it's probably safe to say that this is more like "Writers Ron admires or approves of and wants to be thought of in association with."
When discussing one's one personal poetic development, it is very hard to be honest rather than creating an "aspirational" lineage that reflects what one would have wanted to be influenced by, knowing then what what knows now. We always want to project backwards a knowledge that we didn't have in the past. The other pit-fall is false modesty, of course--pretending to be even more clueless than one really was. On a comment on a post below, Steve Tills seems to want me to have been more aspirational.

For example, aspirationally, I would want to have been influenced by a lot of women writers, yet my truly formative influences are not. I could list a ton of names of people that I would have wanted to have influenced me. If only!

So I continue my story...

(13) I didn't really connect with people my own age or younger as poets until I was about 36 and started with the Buffalo Poetics list. Before that I always thought poets were either idiots or sort of un-contactable icons. I still despise many poets for their stupidity.

(14) Lola Velasco is a friend of mine. One of the cases where friendship leads to writing about a poet's work. Beginning to write in Spanish is a formative development for me, but one that takes places only after 2002 or 03. I try not to write about close friends who are poets.

(15) I've abandoned all sense of chronology at this point. At a certain point I felt I had become a person with the beginnings real education in poetry. This was several years after publishing my first two books of criticism and getting tenure. At the same time, I sense of being a talented poet but one without a poetic work per se. The number of poems I've published is laughable, and I've never published a book or even a chapbook.

4 mar 2009

(8) Really learning Spanish was significant. All of a sudden I had twice as much poetry available to me as before. My first Spanish lit course we read Machado. When I went to Spain, I studied with the greatest living Spanish poet, Claudio Rodríguez. I learned Spanish to read this poetry and also found my profession in the process.

(9) Then, later on, I discovered that I hadn't really known Spanish as well as I thought I had. In other words, looking back now, I know things now that i didn't when I wrote my first few books. Maybe ten years from now I'll have even deeper insight. I don't think I could really hear the rhythms of Spanish poetry until 10 years out. There are things I learned last year that I consider very fundamental.

(10) I went to school with numerous poets--Coolidge, Bronk, Guest, Schuyler--while having my career as Spanish professor. Later it was David Shapiro (and still is). I learned things from poets younger than myself or my same age, but only after about 1996.

(11) The New York poets have always been central to me. That's one constant. I also went back to the sources of these poets. Flann O'Brien, Henry Green, Raymond Roussel, Morton Feldman, etc... I first heard about in connection with Ashbery, Koch, O'Hara.

(12) My Aunt, Lenore Mayhew, the one Poe wrote a poem about, has translated Chinese and Japanese poetry. I've developed an interest in classical Japanese poetry and the standard T'ang dynasty canon. Yet I cannot read Russian poetry in translation, execpt for Mayakovsky.

... to be continued

J.J. Johnson. Bone-o-logy.

Early (late 40s) groups led by trombone great Johnson feature musicians of the caliber of Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Bud Powell,a very young Sonny Rollins. A new player for me is Cecil Payne, heard on alto in the group with Max and Bud on four cuts. Payne plays Lester young type figures, slightly tilted toward a bop idiom, with a wonderfully warm tone and great self-confidence. He would later be better known on Baritone sax, I'm told. Rollins, at age 19, uses a lot of riffs from Parker, but still sounds like Rollins. Kenny Dorham is in one of JJ's groups too. This is what I love about bop: that jerky and exuberant spirit. Bop wants you to be a smart person, hip and alert to the world. Jay Jay is saying that the corny trombone schtick of yesteryear is passé. The bone can be as agile as the trumpet, as legato as the tenor sax.
Scholarly writing can be a solitary activity at times, but it is not done in isolation. It is deeply imbedded in professional and social networks. My giving of thanks below might seem a bit excessive. I've known people who list every member of their department in their acknowledgments, which I don't do. I do think it important, though, to recognize institutions who have given me monetary support, journals that have published my work, ongoing enterprises like The Hall Center, and numerous interlocutors over the course of many years. I began to write that book in 96 or 97, unlike the Lorca book that basically will have taken three or four years from initial inception to published book.
Page proofs for my Liverpool book, The Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry 1980-2000. This is the first time the book seems real to me, that it will actually appear.

These are my acknowledgments:

Chapter 1 appeared in Hispanic Review (1999) under the title “The Avant-Garde
and its Discontents: Aesthetic Conservatism in Recent Spanish Poetry.” I am
grateful to Ignacio-Javier López for this accepting this article, and to Guillermo
Carnero for circulating it among writers in Spain. Chapter 2 was published in
Contemporary Spanish Poetry: The Word and the World, edited by Cecile West-Settle
and Sylvia Sherno. Chapter 3 appeared in Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies. Elena
Delgado, Jo Labanyi, and an anonymous reviewer were helpful in improving
this piece. Chapter 5 appeared in a special issue Diacritics edited by José María
Rodríguez-García. Without the help and encouragement of José María and an
anonymous reviewer for Diacritics, this chapter would have been much weaker.
Claudio Rodríguez-Fer was also helpful to me in giving me background on
Valente’s acquaintance with Celan and Heidegger. Chapter 7 first appeared in
Revista de Estudios Hispánicos. I would like to acknowledge Michael Mudrovic and
Randolph Pope for accepting this article, and Akiko Tsuchiya for permission to
reprint it here. Randolph also accepted other articles of mine on related topics
that did not make it into this book. His generous support of my work over the
years is greatly appreciated.

The research for this book was supported, over the years, by the Univer-
sity of Kansas General Research Fund, the Hall Center for the Humanities, the
Cramer family, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of
Kansas, and the Grant for Cultural Co-operation between U.S. Universities and
the Spanish Ministry of Culture. Without the generous support of these institu-
tions, this book could not have been written.

I owe a debt of gratitude to numerous individuals who have discussed
contemporary Spanish poetry with me, or lent their moral and material
support to me at various points along the way. This list includes Akiko Tsuchiya,
Marjorie Perloff, David Shapiro, Elena Delgado, Silvia Bermúdez, Amalia Iglesias,
Lola Velasco, Concha García, Ana Rossetti, Isla Correyero, César Antonio Molina,
Juan Barja, Guillermo Carnero, Jesús Munárriz, Juan Carlos Mestre, Antonio
Méndez Rubio, Jorge Riechmann, Steve Summerhill, José Manuel Cuesta Abad, Antonio Gamoneda, Jaime Siles, Laura Scarano, Elena Delgado, Germán Gullón,
Chris Soufas, Margo Persin, John Kronik, John Wilcox, and, last but certainly not
least, the late Andy Debicki. My past and present colleagues at the University of
Kansas and the Ohio State University—too numerous to list here—have also
been helpful and encouraging.

The participants in the Poetics Seminar at the Hall Center for the Humani-
ties have also been crucial to my ability to maintain a high level of intellectual
stimulation. Thanks is due to Roberta Johnson and Victor Bailey (past and
present Directors of the Hall Center respectively), for their on-going support of
the Seminar (and of my own research). Ken Irby, Judy Roitman, Stan Lombardo,
Van Kelly, Jill Kuhnheim, and Joe Harrington have been the most assiduous
participants in the Seminar. My hunger for constant intellectual dialogue has
also been fed on a daily basis by an informal network of “Poetry and Poetics
Bloggers”: Jordan Davis, Heriberto Yépez, K. Silem Mohammad, Ron Silliman,
Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Jim Behrle, Tim Yu, Josh Corey, Stephanie Young,
Henry Gould, Nick Piombino, and about a dozen others.

Various audiences who listened to oral versions of the material presented at
several conferences also gave me valuable comments that helped me to clarify
my ideas. Also, the students in several Graduate Seminars helped me to remain
engaged with this material. Leslie Bayers wrote a paper on Concha García for
one of these seminars that stimulated me to develop my ideas on this poet.
This book would not have existed without Luis García Montero. Although
I doubt he will welcome a book that calls his aesthetic values into question,
I must admit that his energy in pursuing his vision of poetry has shaped the
recent history of Spanish poetry. If I had not read his eloquent essays outlining
the ideological basis for the “poetry of experience,” I would never had begun
this project.

Needless to say, none of the individuals or institutions listed above, least of
all Luis García Montero, is responsible for any error of fact or judgment in this
book. In fact, I have ignored a great deal of excellent advice.

3 mar 2009

The thing about the twenty book meme is that it is aspirational. Those have to be the books that you want to have been the books that made you fall in love with poetry, because, face it, nobody who isn't already in love with poetry has even read twenty books of poetry! Even English majors pretty much read what is assigned in anthologies. I had people in my creative writing classes with me in college who hadn't read five books of poetry. Here is my rough chronology:

1. I discover that something called poetry exists, in a book at my Grandmother's house. It is by Edgar Allan Poe, and think there is some connection between Poe and Poet. It seems suspiciously coincidental. It also seemed suspicious that Poe would use the names of two of my aunts in his poetry, Helen and Lenore, and that both of my these aunts of mine were also writers. Of course, I knew that he wasn't referring to my own aunts, but it seemed kind of fateful to me. I was maybe 7 or 9, I'm not entirely sure.

2. We had some kind of book of poetry, probably A Child's Garden of Verses. I remember Wordsorth's daffodils too.

3. In sixth grade, we are to write poems. I decide at that moment that I will be a poet. I've never really been seriously interested in anything else, except for music. I hadn't really read any poetry except for a few Longfellow and Poe poems.

4. Cummings is a big one. I save my money to buy the Collected Poems. I am still twelve or thirteen, maybe 14 by the time I actually have the money to buy it. Meanwhile I buy the cheap paperbacks of Cummings. Later I won't like Cummings nearly as much, but I have to give credit where it belongs.

5. I read some more Longfellow. A boy's will is the wind's will and the thoughts of youth are long long thoughts. I loved that line in Junior High.

6. In French class in High School we read Baudelaire and LaFontaine. I learn the rules of classical French prosody which I still know to this day.

7. I work my way through an edition of X.J. Kennedy's textbook and the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, from ages about 13-18. Williams, Stevens, O'Hara, Koch, Berryman, and Ashbery. Some Creeley. I like James Tate and Mark Strand. I see poetry readings by poets like Stephen Spender and Richard Eberhart when they come to my local university. I occasionally ride my bike past Karl Shapiro's house. I read Howl. I have a subscription to the APR. I send poems to magazines and get rejections. By the time I start college I own about 200 books of poetry. I know Neruda and Breton in translation.

... to be continued

Efraín Huerta. Poemas prohibidos y de amor. 1973. 150 pp.

This is mostly crude propagandistic poetry, full of praise for Stalin, "el único hombre que sabe lo que piensa / y a quien los pueblos de la URSS / llaman el padre de todos los pueblos de la URSS." This would be bad even if Stalin weren't Stalin. When he turns to love poetry, of course, he is equally incapable of an original thought.
I recommend writing every day, as you know, if you are engaged in a long-term major project. You can conceptualize this either as time or as a certain amount of work accomplished. Since microsoft word keeps a running word count, you can watch a project grow.

So how much should you write a day? 100 words is three to six sentences or a short paragraph. 1,000 words is three to four pages. A full length article is 5,000-6,000. A book will be in the mid to high five figures. Most days you are doing to want to write more or less 400-600 words. That is, you want to increase the overall word count by that many words, even if some of those words are very rough notes. That's ten to twelve days to write the article, with another couple of days to revise for style and check the bibliography.

So how come it takes me sometimes 6 months to write an article? There's no way I'm working on a twenty-page article everyday for six months and it taking me that long to finish it. It must be because I am working on it two or three times a month, or even taking whole months off from it.

I realize other people don't have my facility with writing, so "results might vary." On the other hand, writing every day is a way of developing that facility in the first place.

2 mar 2009


*Antonio Cisneros. Por la noche los gatos.. 1989. 275 pp.

This is a healthy selection of Peruvian poet Cisnero's poetry from the early 60s to the mid 80s. There is wonderful poem in which the speaker has the job of educating people about the parts of a cow. It's called "Muchos escritores tienen que dedicarse a la enseñana" (original title is in quotation marks, so maybe that should be double quotes: "'Many writers have to go into teaching'").

Años ya que estoy en este oficio: tomar la vaca entera (o sus indicios / su representación),
mostrarla, señalar sus veinte puntos, nombrar como en un mapa lo que habrá de caer bajo el cuchillo...

(I've been in this profession for years: taking the whole cow (or its indices / its representation),
demonstrating it, showing its twenty points, naming as in a map what must fall under the knife...)

Cisnero's learned the long line from the beats and from Robert Lowell. His poems might take place in the interior of a whale, in Peru, or in Hungary. He is fond of the word "pellejo" (skin, hide of animal, metaphorically that of a person as well).

I only read 12 books of poetry in February, though some I started then I'm only finishing now.

*Clark Coolidge. SPACE. 1970. 120 pp.

This has been on my shelf for a while. I think I've read most of it by now, in fits and spurts. I like the poem on page 86: