July 5, 2011

Investigative Procedures: Publishing Spatola

Investigative Procedures: Publishing Spatola
by Douglas Messerli

Adriano Spatola The Position of Things: Collected Poems 1961-1992 (Los Angeles: Green
Integer, 2008)

With the Green Integer copy of Adriano Spatola’s collected poems, The Position of Things, in hand, wherein Paul Vangelisti thanks me in his “Translator’s Note,” for my “longstanding commitment to the book, I thought I might ponder why I had been so committed to and active in seeing this book come to print, particularly since Paul asked me to write something about the publishing of the book. I thought perhaps it will be of some interest to readers to consider why a publisher chooses the books he does, why a particular book—as opposed to all the others that could possibly have been selected—is brought to life. My choice of books is very personal, as I seek works that elicit deep feelings in me or intimately relate to my own
experiences. Accordingly, I ask the reader’s indulgence in this particular exploration of a great author’s work as I compare my own life and perceptions of myself with those of another. My comparisons are not of the quality of work, but of impetuses behind the writing.

I had previously published the long Spatola poem, “Material, Materials, Recovery of” in a bi-lingual edition in my 20 Pages Sun & Moon Press series. And I had printed a large chunk of Spatola’s works in the 1999 Sun & Moon anthology, The Promised Land: Italian Poetry After 1975. I also had been given copies of Paul’s noted earlier translations of Spatola’s Majakovskiiiiiiiij and Various Devices (I have two copies in my library), and I’d read portions of those titles. Yet it seems amazing—particularly given all the other hundreds of poets in translation I was reading during these same years—that from 1996 to the present I kept advocating the publication of Spatola’s work.

In a sense, I had felt Spatola’s presence in Los Angeles the moment, after moving here in 1984, I began to meet some of the serious poets of the city. Paul, of course, spoke highly of Spatola, whom he had first published in 1971 in his magazine, Invisible City, and whom he had first met in April 1975. Spatola had himself visited Los Angeles, long before my coming here, in 1978 and again in 1980, and memories of those visits and his poetic impact were still fresh in the minds of writers such as Dennis Phillips (who had not met Spatola, but had read his poems) and Lee Hickman, the latter of whom published in his last issue of the magazine Temblor (issue no. 10) Spatola’s poem “Little Exhortation” and Antonio Porta’s obituary of Spatola, “From the Threat of Silence,” as well a selection from my own work. I don’t recall reading that obituary at the time, but I must have, at least, scanned it, noting Porta’s impassioned exhortation of his first paragraph:

It doesn’t seem possible that we would want to forget so quickly and without any reservation a poet of absolute value like Adriano Spatola. Yet one has the unpleasant impression that there is no desire to take serious stock of his death (having come last November 23, at the age
of 47). Have we really become so “cool” toward a poetry that was never conformist? Are we truly content with our modest coaster and our comfortable little neoclassic harbor, and do we prefer repetition to invention? So it is necessary to call attention one more time, empha-
tically, to the work of Adriano Spatola….

I must also have noted, later on in this short essay, Porta’s loving tribute to his poet friend:

Founding Tam Tam was Spatola’s moment of major cultural determination. That act of courage, personal and political, which helped many rediscover a trust in poetic language, would have been enough to ensure him a definite place in our cultural history.

If nothing else, I assimilated these ideas about Spatola, that he was an important poet, like myself an editor, and a man who lived a life almost completely immersed in his art. As Beppe Cavatorta has written: Spatola was a “renaissance poet,” “a visual poet, a sound poet, a concrete poet, a linear poet, editor of an innovative magazine, a refined critic and translator, organizer of historical poetry happenings…and founder of his ‘republics of poetry.’”

As late as 1996, when Paul and I first began our aspirations of publishing Spatola’s collected poems and I wrote to Bianca Maria Bonazzi for permission to do so, however, I had not yet read most of Adriano’s work, and Spatola remained for me a somewhat shadowy figure. How then explain my fervor and long-lasting commitment over these years when I was so overcommitted to publishing other poets, fiction writers, dramatists, and belle-lettrists?

When Vangelisti and I finally determined, late last year, that the time had come to actually produce the book, moreover, I acted—which what many of my writers will describe as uncharacteristic swiftness —producing the finished book in just a few weeks after the delivery of the final manuscript, taking time out only to finally read the whole of it!

What I discovered in those poems and the excellent afterword by Cavatorta, was a confirmation of the poet—as if he needed my confirmation! But I think I can now, at least, explain my previously sublimated interest in the man and his work.

I have already alluded to feeling a great interconnection with Spatola’s literary activities and my own life. I might never be willing to call my publishing pursuits, which have now spanned more than three decades, “courageous” acts—although leaving the university and all financial capabilities behind represented, if nothing else, slightly insane behavior. But reading Cavatorta’s descriptions of Spatola’s intellectual “poetocrazia,” his “country of poetry,” along with Spatola’s own comments—

What then is my activity? First of all, it is a full-time activity. I am free only when invited to a festival of poetry…. On Sundays I have to meet authors and friends who work and are busy during the week. During the other days I typeset, layout and finish books for the printer, I take care of correspondence, I prepare large and small packages for subscribers, I answer the telephone, I cook….—

made me aware that we are at least “soul brothers” in the lonely act of living a life of art. As most people who know me well can tell you, I am to be reached in my Green Integer (and formerly at my Sun & Moon) offices (the latter located behind the self-proclaimed Getrude Stein Plaza) any day of the week. And, although, unlike Spatola, I do little cooking (my companion forbids me from turning our kitchen into a culinary chaos—which also explains why, instead of Spatola’s favorite working space, the kitchen, I packed up books in Sun & Moon’s early days in our bedroom), along with my new enterprise of publishing an annual book of cultural memoirs, one might say that, like Spatola, I live what many might describe as a “committed life”—perhaps a somewhat selfish life, but one I see as representing an impassioned dedication to poetry and writing in general. For me also, art is “serious business.”

That said, Spatola and I do not exactly share the same poetics. His para-surrealistic, paratactic language, a writing which he often describes as “black, dirty, and personal,”

Black poetry black on both sides
doesn’t eat with its mouth or its teeth
not even forceps cancers asthma urology
lips almost open and almost lacerated
the zoomorphic animal that appears dilated
or salad sand of mature thoughts
little by little but only slithering
black dirty privy of presentiments

seemingly bears little resemblance to my more lyrically-inspired, more American romantically-based, and hermetic work. Certainly, our poetry often shares in the density and impactedness of the language, but my collage-based aesthetic is oppositional to Spatola’s longer, repeating poems. Yet in a work like his “The Scissors on the Table,” in which the poet wittily pulls the chair out from under his four-lined rants, “cutting” away the significance of his own dark and emotional statements as he lays them, so to speak, out upon the table, I recognize some of my own early attempts to stealthily situate my own emotions in relation to the reader.

From things the silence the lazy indifference
the old grudge the irresolute insistence
brick upon brick without the last rows
fermented fears irrational requests
nothing much important.

To make sense the rule a secret understanding
syrupy backgrounds odd prejudices
ball of wool and subsoil background with shadow
above all the absence the satisfied coldness
nothing much important.


By repeatedly insisting upon the unimportance of his previous comments, Spatola, of course, draws attention precisely to his words and, by poem’s end we recognize the “acts of degradation,” the “homicidal combustion” and other forces he catalogues as being very much of importance, as representing just those things about which we should become outraged. By work’s end we may recognize, indeed, that it is the “lazy indifference,” the “old grudges,” the “odd prejudices” which ultimately come to be “nothing much important.”

It is perhaps the very differences between us, however, that so draws me to this poet. For in a work such as “Material, Materials, Recovery of”—a poem I could never have written—I am completely overwhelmed by Spatola’s powerful images of a truly “black and dirty” world, a near-holocaust landscape where seemingly all of society has come together to destroy the planet:

Toward the city of placental byways
grazed by the plentiful wares of florists
of pharmacists endowed with prenatal memories
in the gilded bream that seems to swell
dualistic like the profit of interested parties
with the correct and three-dimensional perception
even the look is important in doing business.

Toward the glacial cold the genetic weakness
of formal thought’s painless erosion
which we suspect inside erratic boulders
or among the ants of the frenetic spirit
the force of belligerents with a lively cure
but the grindery carries out the grinding
never had the wound been so simple and pure

How far we have come from Eliot’s contained patient “etherized upon a table” or even William Carlos Williams’ “road to the contagious hospital!” In Spatola’s bleak and blasted environmental disaster, there is no possible redemption. His “acrid zone burning with combustion,” a world of “grass crushed by rasping bulldozer tracks,” where “ambulances are busy with the locals,” represents something of which we only take stock, seek out the “microfilm of the life of investigative procedures.”

One might almost use that metaphor to describe much of Spatola’s writing: “investigative procedures” into how, in the latter half of the 20th century, we lived our lives. If his poetry gives us any evidence of our failures and successes—and it does—I am proud to have been able to help keep those words alive, and further, introduce them to an American audience so much in need of comprehending what has happened to create, as he begins his Eliotic satire “The Cocktail Hour,” “This image of an uninhabited planet.”

Indeed Spatola lived the poetic life—a somewhat hidden life, at times a lonely life—almost as an undercover detective devoted to getting at the truth. His admission at the end of that poem—

I am this history, canned beef, illustrated cerebrum
exhibited in a lecture hall, with my cortical zones and
traces of thought and memory and time and the violence
of comprehension

—might almost serve as a preamble to the aspirations of my own poetic and critical acts.

Los Angeles, March 2, 2008

Presented at a three-day celebration of Spatola, “The Position of Things: The Life and Work of Adriano Spatola,”in Los Angeles (Bonelli Contemporary art galley, Otis College of Art + Design, and the University of California, Los Angeles) on March 6-8, 2008.
Reprinted in Or, No. 1 (September 2008).

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