31 jul 2009

George Russell, pioneer theoretician of modal jazz, has died. One thing I wondered about when I heard this news was whether Russell was the question of what race Russell was. I had never really seen a picture of him and accounts of his place in jazz history don't usually identify him by race in any explicit way. He was closely associated with musicians like Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Art Farmer... In other words, the black and white musicians on the forefront of avant-garde music in the 1950s and 60s . In the picture above you see him standing behind Coltrane.

Why is it important to assign him to a race? Well, it seems that part of what a jazz fan knows is, for example, that Art Taylor is a black guy, along with Sonny Stitt. That Pat Matheny is a white guy, like Keith Jarrett or Art Pepper or Shelly Manne. In other words, for every jazz musician you've heard of, you have a race assigned to that person, if you've heard of the person at all and even if you don't necessarily have a visual image of exactly what the person looks like.

What is interesting here is that after looking at several pictures of George Russell, I still didn't have a category for him. Looking at the biographical information, I noticed that he was adopted, grew up in the African-American church, attended Wilberforce, a traditionally black college in Ohio, and played with Benny Carter. So if someone wrote about the contribution of white musicians like Mulligan, Getz, and Russell, in the 50s, you would probably correct the person and point out the Russell was no more white than Mingus was.

It would be nice to have a nicely politically-correct color-blind conversation about all this, but the 50s was a time that race was at issue (as it still is now, evidently). Mixed-race or ambiguously raced people blur the boundaries, raising the question of why we need to categorize people along these lines in the first place.

I think of my daughter, for example, as simply herself, not as someone that is half of one category and half of another, like some star-trek character painted black on the left and white on the right.

30 jul 2009

I'm going to be posting soon at a new blog called "Arcade" published at Stanford University and edited there by Roland Greene. I'll let you know when it's up I begin my contributions. I suspect I'll be doing very similar postings to what I do here, but in a slightly more formal style.

20 jul 2009

Here's my new outline. The problem I was having was the feeling that I was writing pretty much the same book as I just published. To avoid that, I've taken out some chapters that I've already written or are about to publish as articles, that are too similar to what I've already done, and de-emphasized Valente, who was a dominating presence up to this point. Material from various half-begun chapters will go into chapter 1, which will do double duty as an intro of sorts. Since I've already written 2 and 3, I can work pretty much chronologically, after i finish the Spanish version of the Ullán paper. PART ONE deals with literary-historical issues and has more to do with my previous book, The Twlight of the Avant-Garde. PART TWO deals more with actual poetics/poetry, taking Lorca's duende article as a theory of poetic performance, moving on to a translation from a paper in Spanish I've written on Claudio Rodríguez, and adding the chapter on OGV.

Of course, I'm anticipating that all this will change a few more times before I'm done, probably in the direction of even less overlap with previous work. Articles already published can be a kind of crutch, in that I don't have to start the new project from scratch. Once I come up with a few more ideas I won't necessarily need to reprint this work.

The other alternative is to just go back to being "article guy" again, instead of "book guy." The book, though, provides a way of structuring my work, even if it doesn't ultimately become a book.

Fragments of a Late Modernity: Spanish Poetry from García Lorca to García Valdés


PART ONE: Fragments

1. A Map of Modernism
2. The Persistence of Memory: Antonio Gamoneda and the Literary Institutions of Late Modernity**
3. Fragments of a Late Modernity: Valente and Beckett**

PART TWO: Performances

4. Performative Poetics: Lorca's Duende
5. Claudio Rodríguez: "Manuscrito de una respiración" **
6. José-Carlos Ullán: Performativity and the Visual Text
7. Olvido García Valdés: [Interesting Subtitle]

Conclusion: The Unfinished Business of Modernity

15 jul 2009

I got out my clarinet last night. Julia is in jazz camp in Kansas and staying with me, so I was trying to see whether I could play anything by ear. Sometimes my fingers knew how to play something and sometimes they didn't. They knew Body and Soul and In a Mellotone, for example but for some reason they didn't know Stella by Starlight. Holding the instrument in my hands I found that my memory for certain songs dissolved into thin air. Not only did I have no idea of how to make the fingers play, but I had no notion of the melody. These were songs I know pretty well, too, when I don't have the instrument in my hands.

It was an experience akin to groping for something in a box full of junk in the pitch dark.
There's a gap between the earlier concrete poetry and a later one, beginning in the 70s I think, when opacity rather than transparency and illegibility becomes the order of the day. There were earlier visual poets than Ullán in Spain, but he represents that transition.

Voice and visuality are not in opposition to each other in modernist poetics, though they may appear to be at times. Emphasis on both or either entails an emphasis on the materiality of the sign. The relevant opposition is between voice and visuality, on one side, and Billy Collins-style transparency on the other. In other words, anti-modern emphasis on the communicative function of language. Poetry cannot be transparent by definition.

I've figured out why I've always hated concrete poetry: it moves quickly to a certain transparency of effect. Once you see that the words form an image of the Eiffel tower, and once you see what the words say, and put the two together, you are done. I prefer Ullán's opaque signs, where visuality takes us in the direction of abstraction.

A new dimension of the project is emerging: performativity, visuality, etc... in tension with the emphasis on intellectual history / philosophy.

Perloff usefully distinguishes between 4 approaches to literature / poetry. Poetry as a branch rhetoric; as philosophy; as an art form alongside of other forms of art; as document of cultural history. The tension in my project is between philosophy, intellectual history, and cultural history, on the one hand, and art. Ullán is bringing me closer to performative and interartistic, performative aspects of Lorca.

12 jul 2009

It's going to be fun to see the outraged letters in response to the July / August Poetry magazine, with its section on flarf / conceptual writing.

9 jul 2009

Royalties, even very modest ones that only barely begin to cover the time and monetary research costs of writing a book, are the sweetest form of money earned. Maybe because an academic doesn't expect to make any money at all writing a book.

8 jul 2009

Ed Ruscha's another one I'm interested in. Like Twombly (but so unlike Twombly) the painted WORD is at the center of his work. Ruscha has that pop art, slick commercial art craftsmanship, Twombly, the faux-naif scribble.

I saw some amazing Twombly in an exhibit in Chicago at the Art Institute a couple weeks ago (mid June.) Ruscha I don't know much about aside from leafing through a few catalogues. I like his photos and paintings of gas stations and swimming pools.

The pop art nexus from Cornell to Warhol and Lichtenstein to Ruscha, Johns, Rivers, Hockney, Guston, and even Joe Brainard is pretty interesting, once you get past the clichés. There's a complex relationship to surrealism and dada, and to AbEx too. It's not a simple binary between pop art and other forms of twentieth century art that are more modernist (less postmodern). There's that pop art gesture of mimicking the "painterly" brushstroke.


This is one of those areas where my knowledge is not extensive but not at all systematic. I am sure there are fairly important painters I don't know, since I only heard of Ruscha for the first time maybe two or three years ago, I think when Gary Sullivan mentioned him in a blog post or essay. There are maybe a half dozen artists I know pretty well, like Cornell, Tàpies, Rothko and then a little bit about a lot more. Then numerous blank spots where I don't even know what I don't know.
I re-read Fenollosa's "The Chinese Written Character" again yesterday. I couldn't believe how naive the underlying theory of language was in this seminal text--naive to the point of stupidity in the privileging of transitive verbs and subject verb object word-order. The orientalizing gaze of Pound and Fenollosa is almost unbearable. What is most unbearable is that opinions of Chinese scholars are never cited frequently enough, that there really isn't a depth of knowledge here adequate to the task at hand.

I also spent some time with some Twombly catalogues and a huge, recent Yale UP book of Chinese calligraphy. My ideas are coming together nicely.

Concrete poetry also seems kind of naive and hokey to me--most of it. Wouldn't it make sense that if I only like 10% of poetry that I would also only like 10% of visual and concrete poetry? What I don't like is the regressive move back toward naive mimesis, when the aim should be to move in the opposite direction, toward abstraction in both language and the visual, iconic sign. Here I'll bring in John Yau's point about Creeley's abstract language in his catalogue of Creeley's collaborations.

This chapter of the book is going to end up being the center in a way I hadn't anticipated, taking me in new directions.

There are four direction in which modern poetry re-emphasizes visuality:

(1) The hypervisuality of imagism and related movements.

(2) The dedication to the printed or type-written page.

(3) The exploration of typography for its own sake, as an extension of (2).

(4) The collaborative impulse, reaching out to forms of visual art.

5 jul 2009


Rollins. Work Time.

This was recorded in 55 and features Max Roach, Ray Bryant, and George Bryant as the rhythm section. One of the earliest albums I've heard in which Sonny's style and approach to rhythmic phrasing is fully formed. This is one of the Rudy Van Gelder cd reissues, and was originally Prestige PRS 1223.

The propensity to play corny songs like "There's No Business Like Show Business" is already there. There's also a version of Strayhorn's "Rain Check."
I spent some time with Ullán's "agrafismos," which also go the title "ondulaciones." These are small works of visual art in various media that insist on a few basic motifs in repetitive, playful variations. There is a serpent superimposed on various backgrounds, some of which look like thicker, undulating serpents or worms. Place enough of these worms in a circle, and the serpent is seen against a human brain. The wavy lines can look like ocean waves or suggest indecipherable writing systems.

A wave in a rope or whip, for example, moves the length of the rope, but the rope itself does not move forward. I realized that I don't know how snakes move forward. Legged animals move by pushing back on the ground and causing an equal and opposite reaction of forward motion, right?. I'm assuming that slithering locomotion occurs by exerting pressure backwards by curling and then straightening, using the friction of the entire length. I'd never really thought of it before. On the other hand I don't know how cross-country skier go uphill.

3 jul 2009

The winner of the first Apocryphal Lorca giveaway contest is... Vance Maverick. Please send me your mailing address to jmayhew "at" ku.edu I considered giving it to Laura Carter. She can still win another month if she shows up here "in person." Tom Beckett lost some grammar points when he said "tengo mucho hambre" instead of "tengo mucha hambre" or he would have had a better chance.

I will give away a Lorca book each month until the end of 2009 to the person living in the US or Canada who asks the nicest and/or gives me the best reason why s/he is interested in it. My aim is the selfish one of promoting my own book by getting it to as many readers with the most genuine interest in it who might tell a friend about it if they actually like it. Needless to say, I've exhausted my author's copies, and a second batch I purchased, but I can afford to buy one copy of my own book a month at the cheapest internet price for a little while longer.
If you want to learn to read Ancient Greek or play the guitar, you probably can. Not every thing is in reach for every person, but usually if someone wants to do something of this nature it is possible--at some realistic level of success. Realism itself, though, is kind of a trap, if confused with a pessimistic "know your limits" kind of thinking. Realism means knowing that it takes time and dedication to being good at something, but that time and dedication will produce tangible results. Realism is a certain clarity of thought about how much you really want a particular goal and how much serious time you can devote to it. It means removing purely mental obstacles to see what's actually preventing you from moving forward. For example, it is the thought that "Greek is hard" that might be holding you back, not the hardness of Greek itself. The actual difficulty of the task can be approached, but the idea of difficulty in the abstract is insurmountable.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in any field of endeavor, but a lot of things are easier than that. Baking pretty decent bread does not take 10,000 hours of practice--or many other normal talents that a lot of people can develop. So the level of "realism" is going to vary as well. Someone who says they could never learn to bake bread is probably wrong. They don't really want to learn badly enough to make it worth their while.

Inherent talent only comes in tangentially to all of this. For example, someone might put in the hours and still not be great. But I can assure you the person will achieve a respectable degree of mediocrity-- which might be enough for their purposes.

2 jul 2009

Fuck NPR. This is their ombusman's view:

But no matter how many distinguished groups -- the International Red Cross, the U.N. High Commissioners -- say waterboarding is torture, there are responsible people who say it is not. Former President Bush, former Vice President Cheney, their staff and their supporters obviously believed that waterboarding terrorism suspects was necessary to protect the nation's security.

One can disagree strongly with those beliefs and their actions. But they are due some respect for their views...

No, sorry, they are not due any respect for their despicable views. Since when does the fact that Dick Cheney hold a view make it automatically respectable? Once the debate is framed as a debate between two positions that reasonable people can disagree about, then the Dick Cheney side automatically wins. You can just "teach the controversy." It's the lazy journalistic thinking that there are two sides to every story that must be given equal weight. I'm sure the creationists and holocaust deniers are taking notes. Once a position gets a toehold of respectability then it's basically won.

This is why the Steve Fullers and Alicia Shepards of the world are worse than the Demskis. People who legitimize the illegitimate under the cover of spurious objectivity.

1 jul 2009

I made a half-way decent pico de gallo last week by chopping up four smallish tomatoes with finely chopped onion (one half of a medium), a tiny bit of garlic, a mess of cilantro, two small green serrano chiles, and salt, with a bit of lemon juice.
To make Kung Pao Chicken for three people I usually take 1 1/2 lbs of boneless chicken breast and slice very thin, soaking it in a mixture of white wine and cornstarch just to coat. I stir fry that separately in small batches and set aside. Then I throw some dried red hot peppers in the wok and stir fry some carrots and celery, diced, and add a onion and red pepper, along with garlic and ginger, when the carrots and celery are almost done. Then I re-add the chicken along with a little more white wine and cornstarch mixture, with a little soy sauce and vinegar. I mix in everything together. Somewhere along the way I will have tossed in a handful of unsalted, roasted peanuts, and made sure the rice is cooking. I drizzle a little sesame oil on top and we're ready to eat.

Since one of the three people doesn't eat very spicy food, I leave the peppers whole. For the spicy version break open the peppers at the beginning.
Last night I took about a dozen small red potatoes, cut them into halves or quarters, and boiled them (without peeling them) in lightly salted water to make a potato salad with 1/2 tsp of capers, a small quantity of diced red onion and shredded carrots. The dressing was 2 T of mayo with a clove of garlic crushed into it and some paprika, a negigible amount of vinegar. This accompanied bbq chicken thighs skinned and marinated in pineapple juice, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce--and basted with whole foods chipotle citrus bbq sauce.