Monday, 29 October 2018

The social life of books.

Last night, Britt and I hosted the tenth iteration of our But Also Reading Series with Kenning JP García, Amanda Dahill-Moore and GD Harkavy. Afterwards I saw Ell staring at our books in the hall, so we went for the grand tour. I’m a near-compulsive book buyer. It’s probably what I spent most of my money on in my adult life. I’m definitely not a collector. I buy books for use. I’ve been trying to use the public library here more, which is a reminder of one of the reasons why I tend to buy used books. Broadly speaking I like to read theory and poetry. Theory is dense and therefore takes a long time and poetry demands to be re-read. I like to be able to peruse a book whenever the mood strikes. Nothing is more frustrating than the feeling that there is one book, or certain combination of several particular books, whose proximity to each other would illuminate the problem at hand.

I brought out some recent purchases to show Una. The Gray Notebook was set aside after an approving nod to the notion that Pla returned to the same work (same year) for decades. She fell into Ammiel Alcalay’s from the warring factions (purchased at the new Unnameable Books in Amherst) and ended up quoting some of it, perhaps to Amanda before the night was through. I offered to loan it to her, but she said she wanted to know what I thought of it first.

My first thought is that it is swathed in contextualizing apparatuses. When I first bought it, I had scanned the introduction by Diane di Prima. Short, radical, gnostic after her fashion. “That if definition of a life: a woman’s, an artist’s, a warrior’s life, is possible—it is not in counting defeat or loss but in realizing what one has managed to hold onto. To pass on” (iii-iv). But also:

The Beloved’s face can yet be traced, albeit in ash & broken glass, trobar clus weaves barely audible through the screams of the wound, shouts of the dying and the possible. Hyacinthos pushes to bloom through the mouth of an unnamed corpse, and all true Victory is secret. (iv)

The cover announces that the book is also edited by Fred Dewey, and ends with a nearly fifty page conversation with Benjamin Hollander, and a several page “Addenda” from the editor.

I mention these paratextual attributes because if the author and editor hadn’t chosen to include this material, I would have gone into the text as I often do: a suppliant, asking for the text to teach me how to read it. Something about it feels more honest or maybe true to the intimacy of text and reader. But I also love paratext, in a more guilty-pleasure kind of way. One of my favorite aspects of litmags is the bios. When bios are short or absent, I feel cheated!

This is all to say that prompted by last night to take a break from the lengthy Gray Notebook and take a more serious look at Alcalay, I began this morning with the conversation. Alcalay is an interesting figure who I think I first encountered through Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith when I was much younger, which is another way of saying that he has one foot in my lineage of US experimental poetry. I handled his books and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative when I worked at SPD, but hadn’t read him yet except an occasional poem, article, or translation in a magazine here or there.

His own coming of age into the alternative currents of US poetry and politics is rather charmed, from a contemporary perspective. It reads like a capsule version of di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman or Delany’s The Motion of Light on Water with regard to the cast of characters (e.g. young Ammiel playing badminton with Charles Olson, etc.). Alcalay also makes clear that his other foot is firmly planted outside of the US, initially from the circumstances of his family, who left the former Yugoslavia for Italy and before coming to the US, being a Sephardic Jew and spending some of his youth in Israel, where he worked on coalitional activism between Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians.

He has strong words to say about the hermetically sealed state of US letters, but I appreciate the quick reading of Olson’s poetics which Alcalay argues for as politically as well as poetically radical—not because I have any special love (or hate) for Olson per se, but the mobilization of a familiar counter-canonical poet in such a way helps me to imagine what kind of poetry Alcalay aspires to.

To be continued...