"To bring the poem into the world / is to bring the world into the poem."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011



“Hard Times in the Land of Plenty”

Source: YouTube/Sesame Street, New York Daily News, 4 Oct 011, where the caption reads: “Lily, the newest muppet on 'Sesame Street', comes from an impoverished family that is food insecure. Her character will be introduced in a primetime special.”

Once you have made yourself comfortable and visualized the flamingo, still your mind, soften your heart, melt your muscles. This is not an authoritative directive; for example, stop thinking!—lighten up!—relax! This is simply a very gentle suggestion, a reminder, if you will, to still your mind, heart, and body in the way that a plastic pink flamingo is still. Quite still. Once your restless totality quiets, and the flamingo is center stage, then quietly say, “Pink flamingo one.” If you begin to smile, that is great. (If you don’t, don’t worry about it.) Take a breath. Say out loud, “Pink flamingo two.” Again, take a breath. You should feel a little calmer. (If you don’t, don’t worry about it.) Now say, “Pink flamingo three,” and take another breath. Feel peace descend. Your job is off-shored; doesn’t matter. You go to college but get a job in retail for eight dollars an hour; doesn’t matter. Your house is foreclosed; doesn’t matter. “Pink flamingo four.” Worry fades away. Visualizing a plastic pink flamingo has a way of helping me let go of little irritations and complaints.
—Renée E D’Aoust, “American Flamingos & Road Kill: A Monologue in Six Parts”, at Drunken Boat 14

Dear Eileen, everything is connected to everything else: every bit of our history since we stumbled into agriculture, capitalism’s neoliberal / financialized stage (our epoch), income inequalities, poverty, immigration, all the wars that are being waged everywhere, a broken healthcare system, massive starvation in the South, ongoing planetary destruction, the list is nearly endless, I won’t try to be the least bit comprehensive, but I do want to include the 147 million orphans you speak so eloquently about. Their lives and fates are intertwined with all of the above and then some. I know you’re not asking for a polemic; the emphasis, as I take your first question, is on the word “your.” But if I wander a bit it’s because I am utterly certain that the Great Recession IS connected to everything else. Therefore so is my Recession experience.

But I promise to try to stay focused on my sense of the intent of your question.

I suppose my first “Great Recession” experience took place in 1980. It was the day after Reagan was elected. Burt Lipman, next to whom I worked at the time, turned to me and said (and this is an exact quote), “Now it begins: the rape of America.”

Burt was so right. I remember the bust of the 1980s, out of which we climbed via the looting of the Savings & Loans industry. Next came the downturn of the early 90s; the dot com bubble saved us that time. We were all going to be millionaires, remember those days? There was a recession when that bubble burst, from which nothing saved us. Our problems since then until the meltdown of 07/08 and forward you have called The Great Recession.

I only mention all this because I didn’t “need a weatherman” to have known this was coming for a long time. Tho of course I knew nothing of subprime mortgages (I thought subprime had something to do with the prime rate!), CDOs, etc. But it was obvious we were doing something unsustainable, that we were living in a house of cards: wages had been flat for 40 years, wealth was concentrating into fewer and fewer hands and … well, I could add and mix a million metaphors, but I’m guessing there’s no need to.

Attendant upon the foregoing is a sense of great anger and great sadness. We’ll be trapped in this mess for a long time. Not forever—neither Badiou nor Žižek would forgive me ;-) if I said forever, and I don’t believe in forever, myself; we’re not at the “end of history”, and this sense of horrid stasis-at-best is “just a buzz, some kind of temporary”; something unexpected will happen, and then, and then, … who knows? I have my own crazy ideas … some of them are even positive … but I know what they’re worth … Anyhow, things will change.

But even this other and hopefully better future won’t be particularly personal. It’ll affect all of us. Or those of our descendants living several generations from now.

But tho I will try to keep this writing as personal as I can, per my perception of your intent, it won’t get all that personal. Why? Because I’ve been lucky. The only way that I’ve been directly affected is that my partner in publishing has had to bow out, so we shut down Leafe Press. I still have a job (tho my benefits are getting worse). My kids have jobs. Their spouses have jobs. We all eat. We all sleep indoors …

So what I will talk about is my experience of how the Great Recession, or at least they way it’s being used (cf. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine), is affecting, and effectively destroying public higher education. I’ve worked in a public university system for 25 years, but I won’t just focus on my system, at least not at first, since what I know is true in much of the Western world.

First of all, universities are more and more putting their dollars and emphases on programs that generate revenue. I’ll give an example: certain industries, such as biotech, depend on universities to do the basic research. The universities, using essentially unpaid grad student labor, do this research, patent it, and then sell the patents to industry, which of course turn a profit on the whole transaction when they turn the basic patents into viable products. Then they send some of that money back into the university, so that the cycle will continue. But that’s not all; note that I said some of that money. I should have said “not enough”. Why? Because industry knows that the federal government and private foundations and student fees, etc, will cover the rest of the cost.

Now I could imagine someone saying that this is all very logical, but what they don’t consider is that this bodes very ill for funding adequately the parts of the university that don’t generate revenue. I sat next to a very successful investment banker at dinner a year or two ago (he ran a bank in NYC til he retired recently), and, because he had been called in by UC Davis to help them find ways to more fruitfully invest their capital, he was quite aware of this problem. He too was worried sick about the fate of the humanities and some of the social sciences.

Since that dinner, we have watched our fears play out in the closing of e.g. philosophy departments in the UK, the comp lit dept at SUNY Albany, etc. I have read official UC documents noting that revenue-generating departments and colleges will be privileged going forward over those that can’t show ROI.

Additionally, and now I’m speaking of the UCs in particular, I have watched the cost to students rise significantly. While it’s still cheaper to attend a UC than it is to attend a private, that’s only on paper. The privates have known for ages that students can’t pay $30-50-odd-thousand; very few people have that kind of money. So they have a long tradition of serious financial aid programs. Not so for public universities, the UCs included. To give just one example, it was cheaper for my officemate to send his son to Harvard than to Cal.

Now I’ll focus on something I know intimately: libraries. I’ve been a librarian for 25 years, and a collections librarian for the last 10 or so. I’m the librarian at UC Riverside responsible for the Humanities and Social Sciences collections at present. Though there was a recession at the turn of the millennium, the budget for humanities monographs was probably $500,000. My own budget for my own specialty disciplines (history, English, philosophy, religious studies, creative writing) was over $250,000.

A decade later, the monographic budget for ALL disciplines, including sciences and social sciences is not more more than the humanities budget used to be. In fact, the last few years it’s been less. The only reason it will be as much as it is this year is because the chancellor has mandated that it be so, even though the result will be a significant number of layoffs. So we may be able to buy books, but we won’t be able to process them in any timely fashion.

What does this mean? It means that we will no longer be able to build collections. We will no longer be able to buy a book “just in case” (meaning so that someone get it from the shelves because they read about it in another book, or can stumble across it serendipitously—and I doubt I have to explain what this means for collecting poetry); we now buy books on a “just in time” basis—meaning because someone has asked for a specific title.

In order to mitigate the effect of what to every librarian and student and researcher is a, shall I say, “less-than-ideal” situation, I have been very involved—in fact I’ve been the project manager—on something called Demand-Driven Acquisitions. This means that we will load lots and lots of records in our library catalog for stuff we don’t own, to help library users discover it. If it’s an e-book, they can just click the link and start using the book. But if it’s print, we’ll have to place an order and they’ll have to wait a week or two. Since we have to make sure that we don’t exceed our budget, we have to very carefully vet the titles that we choose to load. The standard way to do this is by publisher. You don’t need to be told that there will be lots of records for Stanford University Press, and Oxford University Press, and Routledge, etc,—the publishers which are important to academia and academic advancement—and very few if any for Action Books and Kelsey St and Meritage Press…

The other way that the UCs libraries have attempted to cope with diminished-and-unlikely-to-be-replaced resources is via what’s known as Shared Print. This is a systemwide effort in which I’ve also had involvement. The idea is that one or two campuses will buy a title, rather than five or seven or ten. I am trying desperately to get SPD as a whole picked up as a shared print project, so that at least one copy of every SPD title will be purchased. That’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. But in any case, shared print will result in a harder row to hoe for publishers, as well as the students and researchers who will have to borrow books held on other campuses.

So all in all one could say that the Great Recession is affecting the ability of the arts and humanities to sustain themselves, assuming that the university’s been a somewhat supportive player, in terms of teaching, research and purchasing of materials.

Why is this important? Why does this make me sad, why does this make me angry? Well, I saw a graphic in the NY Times a week or two ago. It linked education level to voting. The lower the level of education, the more likely a voter is to take seriously racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-science, religiously fanatical, etc etc candidates. Now, I’m not a strict believer in enlightenment-only values, and I know there are all kinds of problems with higher education, but I surely don’t want to live under the Taliban.

I hope that goes some way towards answering the question.



I’ve been working on a long poem cycle called "Zeitgeist Spam." This poem is designed to “get it all in.” I think of it as an altar-piece or a fresco. The “panel” I started a year ago, in the midst of the recession and all its attendant ills, is called "In the House of the Hangman." The title derives from a Theodor Adorno quote that goes something like this: “In the house of the hangman, it is impolite to speak of the noose.” By the house of the hangman, he meant Germany, and by the noose, he meant the Nazi past. Well, it seemed and seems to me that we all live in the hangman’s house now. And I at least feel compelled to speak of the noose, which in this case is not the Nazi past, it’s the everything I mention above that’s connected to everything else. It’s the “postmodern condition”, I guess, which I interpret to mean something like end of, or at least the putting on hold of, what Ernst Bloch called hope.

So this is the “hell panel.” There’s a special focus on “the noose.” Why? I’ve been asked why I write about all this horrible stuff. The answer is really simple. I have grandchildren. I am afraid they will inherit a world much worse, much more difficult to live in, than the one in which I grew up. If they ever read my work, I want them to say, “Grandpa was paying attention. He was on the job.” I don’t want them to say, “What was he thinking … useless old man …”

But I don’t want them to think, “Wow, Grandpa didn’t have any fun,” either. So the challenge is to find a balance, and to not leave anything out.



From "In the House of the Hangman"

Can Europe be saved? No underlying goo will be found. Period. Any juicehead will get some nut shrinkage. Ironically, the corpse was deposited just across the road from where I once encountered a big, mysterious pile of dead carp. Large carp–the orange kind you find in garden pools, swimming around lazily. These had been dead for maybe a couple of weeks, and had lost their color, and most of the smell. I could see ambulance spelled backwards, I could see the eels spilling out of the horse’s head, we are seeing proposals for urban-scale fortresses made from freshwater injection wells, artificial troglodyte homesteads in Long Beach constructed with from rocks harvested from debris basins, crawling bagpipe-machines (actually built!) that walked around London powered by bike pumps and bleating like sheep, pollution-harvesting devices in the skies of southern California that will collect dust and carbon through electromagnetic attractors, future climate-prediction mechanisms and the networked sensorscapes that make them possible, synthetic orchards, mobile well heads, resistance-powered lamps in the chaparral monitoring seasonal windspeeds, “kit architectures” for unstable landscapes, “cloud dispensers” and other augmented climatologies, machine-cowboys overseeing herds of hydrotropic robots on the dry bed of Owens Lake, groundwater filtration interfaces for sites where the hills hit urban flatlands, open-source bio-fuel experimentation labs run by amateur genetic engineers, urban oxygen gardens, experimental greenhouses running test-climates for a future earth, a new studio for Ai Weiwei, and a dozen other projects, all of which will continue to be developed, tweaked, or abandoned etc. as the workshop moves on. “Go straddle a narwhal.” We're all forever indebted to a stranger for sharing that gem. Also, whaaat? He knows Pi to the 46th digit? This guy sounds awesome. Why was he the assistant manager of a Domino’s to begin with? You’re better off, man! Nobody wants to mix lava cake for some humorless jerk who spells narwhal “narwhale”. Necropastoral, eh? Contaminatory and ripe for contamination. Insane in the membrane which, famously, Death (and Art) can easily traverse (Hence, Eot in Arcadia Ego), like, like, fraud, counterfeit, ventriloquy, and necromancy – four of my fave genres! She walks into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs. A group of exobiologists wrangle half-heartedly in an empty Pret a Manger. Travelers will see stones in animal shapes. Losing it—the young woman was crying on the phone. She wanted her blurb back. She was saving it. They all passed out naked in the motel room. I Am One of an Infinite Number of Monkeys Named Shakespeare, or, to quote Gopal Balakrishnan on Alain Badiou’s The Century: History was never, then, the actual condition of the innovations associated with modernism and revolutionary politics, but merely the rhetoric of temporality deployed to protect a fragile, innovative present from a menacing past by enclosing it in an imaginary future. Another way to put that: a dark television is a lost opportunity, when you could stuff it with 77 million paintings. An Italian man shot in the head on New Year’s Eve sneezes out the bullet on 11 Jan. When the Immigrant first appears, there is an excess that seems to scumble beyond the light. Something intervenes where the self, itself, affixes itself. There is always something touching, something moving, but out of hand … In all cases, color begins in a matrix of information. But in one group of works, it goes directly to a printer where it is mixed on a fabric substrate in 3 successive passes. Nowhere in this procedure is there a reified screen image. What can be said to be at stake, rather, is the movement from pure quantity to the output of the printer without the mediation of design. 1 + 1 = 3: “The point is that abstraction, which never looks quite like itself, is always lacking (decorative, senseless) while also seeming to be ‘too much.’ It is the handmaiden of emptiness as well as the herald of excesses. And it is always the seeming-lacking that charges the feeling or presentiment – the vague expression of a judgment – that somehow, threateningly, there is too, uh … I dunno … too … well, fucked-up power relations. Doesn’t this crooked pathway of suspicions and avoidances bespeak a passage in the terrain that we presume to call the unconscious? And is ‘abstraction,’ then, a name for little traces of migrant affect?” It’s a blank swan thing. Here is Beatrix Potter, describing the action of a rolling pin on a kitten pudding: roly-poly, roly; roly, poly, roly … This is hardly language at all, and perhaps for that reason there is no latitude in its interpretation. So someone is named named One-Half-the-World’s-Population,-Approximately-3-Billion-People-on-Six-Continents,-Lives-or-Works-in-Buildings-Constructed-of-Dirt. Atmospheres include dankness, smoke, gas, and exhaust; Matter contains dust, puddles, mud, and debris; and Life includes weeds, insects, pigeons, and crowds. During the day, they’d give lectures on altered consciousness, the double kingdom, and the line. Ecclesiastes or Buddhist “only don't. as luminous shit. comet’s path of

If you feel no forget to get some

What then is poetry? have two questions:

FIRST. You me repeatedly

as you seem Sounds to me those of? Dark and to be “splendiferous” in your least?

What is (and painful), as you will force again:

“I have learned the measure of our cacophony What else
Could it be? What is the relationship between gushing-forth of love affairs and chemical spiritual discontent, but that is a present, and a true traveler’s curiosity you will have a you will have a for it.

And do shall swallow and expel as being … pure. Except densely detailed, thickly textured, richly imaged beautiful sunset melody on one cannot speak, thereof one (to be?) the measure of to do with once believed, The day I cease burning, the Absolute, you might want to

take (to be?) the us? the

Full disclosure: when I which
one is to amid the “only don't know” (as a are? The people wishing you something so seemingly usual simplifying “time” into visionary self—whatever Oh, Bite me, Tongue …



John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards the middle of a project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. The third section, In the House of the Hangman, is underway. In the House of the Hangman is a mashup. All sources have been documented, and citations will be included upon publication. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, a collaboration with Jerome Rothenberg. He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.


1 comment:

Michael said...

While reading this, the idea of twilight came to mind, of dimness spreading. It's like being in a world where light used at home are candles. You watch the transition from day to night, transfixed, because the aesthetics of a fall is spectacle.