April 13, 2017

"Pitching Poetry" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on Bernstein's Pitch of Poetry)

Pitching Poetry

by Douglas Messerli

Charles Bernstein Pitch of Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) 

Charles Bernstein’s collection of poetic essays, Pitch of Poetry is precisely that: a “pitch” for innovative and challenging poetry, and a statement about the “tune” or “key,” the sound of poetry itself. Bernstein’s writing is necessarily a thing made out of pitch, the black, sticky substance of coal or wood tar:

                 Poetry’s the thing with feathers (tethers) tarred on, as

                 in Poe’s “system” of Tarr and Fethering (fathering).

                 The kind of poetry I want gums up the works.

                      A tangle of truths.

     From the outset of his career Bernstein has fought for a poetry of leaps and fissures, one that inhabits the space between logic and irrationality; here he furthers and refines his argument, in part one of the book, through a series of short essays that reiterate his ideas of “sounding the word,” and what he and Bruce Andrews once promoted as “Language” poetry. He restates his concerns with “disjunction, fragment, recombination, collage, overlay, and constellations,” while redefining poetic genres such as “prose poetry,” “free writing,” “The New Sentence,” Williams’ “Sprung Lyric,” “eco-poetics,” “performance,” and other possible poetic inclinations, including areas of “translation, transcreation, idiolect, and nomadics.”

      In the second part of the book—the “pitch” itself—Bernstein offers longer and shorter essays on his influences and the contemporary figures he admires in order to help define his aesthetics: Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Paul Celan, Barbara Guest, Jackson Mac Low, Robin Blaser, Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner, John Ashbery, Hannah Weiner, Haraldo de Campos, Jerome Rothenberg, and in the shorter category, Maggie O’Sullivan, Johanna Drucker and others. (In the interest of transparency, he has kind words about my own poetry and publishing). Not all of these essays are equally convincing, but together they lay out a poetic  landscape that clarifies what Bernstein as both critic and poet finds compelling. In so doing he establishes a broad range of his bases—the territory of what he embraces as a poet.

     The next section, devoted to 11 interviews and conversations, seemed initially to be the least engaging. I’d already read so many other such pieces and participated in a few with Charles myself. Yet the swath of self-revelation that emerges in these interviews is, in fact, more poetic and revealing than the essays. Bernstein—a highly gifted speaker who is often given to linguistic arpeggios—is particularly charming with foreign correspondents such as the Nepalese poet Yubraj Aryal, the Canary Islands-born writer Manuel Brito, and French writer Penelope Galey-Sacks. With these writers he evidently feels freer to restate his interests and turn them over in his own mind, exploring the depths of his numerous poetic projects over the years. A passage from the Galey-Sacks interview must suffice as an example:

You said something interesting at the conference yesterday:

that the intimations of verse occur on the teleological horizon

of the possible. Yet you’re also presenting language poetry

as breaking with convention, and I imagine you mean

breaking with American convention specifically? How does

this idea of continuity tie in with the idea of rupture, the

idea of breaking? You said yourself that there was a con-

tinuity in your work as well as an evolution—an expansion 

of yourself. You are yourself an expanding poet, and you are

expanding through language…how do these intimations of

verse occur on the teleological horizon of the possible? To

cite Eliot, how do you connect your beginnings with your



There are different overlapping strands that twist and loop

 back, as in a Möbius strip or Klein bottle. The issue of con-

 vention is an important one, and it relates to the idea of 

process. The best formulation for me is one indebted to 

Emerson by way of Cavell: “aversion of conformity in the 

pursuit of new forms.” The concept of aversion—which is a 

swerving-away-from—is more appealing and also more 

audacious than the idea of breakage and transgression. Still, 

in poetry the difference between those terms is more about 

emotion and desire than accurate philosophical description or 

decision. And so there are reasons why some poets talk about 

transgression and breakage, or coupure,  blows (Le quatre 

cents coups). And in France you have that, of course, partly 

with the French Revolution itself versus the British 

Revolution; when you’re cutting off heads, that’s a vivid 

image for this spectrum. But what’s interesting about aversion 

or swerving—to think of it in Lucretian terms—is that you 

actually feel the process of moving away and moving toward 

rather than a splitting or disconnection or decoupling. That’s 

what I interested in as a poet. I’m interested in the rhythmic 

relationships that occur, moving in, around, and about 

convention. Because my work is entirely dependent upon


I wish I could quote further, but that would be to repeat the wonders of this book itself.

     The last section, “Bent Studies,” is the most remarkable, simply because the author jumps onto the tightrope, challenging his ideas and wit to the full. With a “whoosh & higgly hoot & a he-ho-hah,” Bernstein takes on a remarkable cast of “Countrymen, Cadets, Soldiers, Monkeys, a French Doctor, Porters, an Old Man, Apparitions, Witches, Professors, etc,” along with the ghosts of Poe, Dickinson, Williams, Blake, Crane, Whitman, Mallarmé, Emerson, Wittgenstein, and Fanny Brice to explore and celebrate his idea of the messiness of real poetry. In the process he brilliantly lampoons academic writing, particularly by taking justified pot-shots at D. W. Fenza, executive director of Associate Writing Programs (who argues that it is “morally repugnant” to question the merits of the literary prize system), The New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and other official “protectors of poetry” who apparently want their poetry squeaky-clean and sweet, or, as Bernstein implies, want to excise his kind of poetry from their lives.

     In a poetics of “pitch” and “tar,” such narrow visions of the poem simply cannot exist, and Bernstein seems to delight in debunking them. I’ve seldom had as much fun in jumping into the muck and mess of the poetry wars. Pitch of Poetry made me laugh—and sometimes even cry—but never for a moment was I bored or disinterested. How many critical works can be described in that manner? If you love poetry, and take it seriously, then this book is a must.      

Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve 2016

Reprinted from Hyperallergic Weekend (April 2017).


March 7, 2017

Regis Bonvicino's Beyond the Wall: New Selected Poems | review by Marcelo Lotufo

Régis Bonvicino. Beyond the Wall: New Selected Poems. Kobenhavn/Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2017. 224p.

Beyond the Wall, the new collection of poems by the Brazilian poet Régis Bonvicino published by Green Integer in a bilingual edition, is a great addition to the 2000 collection “Sky-Eclipse,”which includes Bonvicino’s earlier work, published by the same press; and it’s arrival is timely. Though the collection was most likely conceived well before the 2016 election, and Donald Trump’s wall obsessed campaign, the title – taken from the poem “Writing on the Wall” – seems eerily appropriate. The recent work of Bonvicino speaks to our contemporary times and works to unmask the shallowness of our liberal dreams and beliefs. In its dystopian acceptance of the world, Régis does what intellectuals and journalists refrained from doing during the election and goes roaming in the world, looking for the obvious contradictions and limitations which, though we convinced ourselves had been overcome, never really went away. The calm of the Obama years and the certainty of Clinton’s victory in the election were as superficial as the fashion color of the season. Maybe from São Paulo, from south of the border, be it literal or symbolic, liberal ideas were nothing but a façade, bombs never stopped falling, and corruption was never more blatant. “Never sell your revolt,” writes Bonvicino in “Petroglyph,” or you’ll be doomed.  Too bad we did not hear that warning in time. In short, Bonvicino reminds us that all that is solid still melts into air and capitalism is still capitalism, built on fake beliefs, always-rising inequality, and environmental crimes. The world is more Abu Ghraib and Alepo than Berkeley and Gramercy Park.

The poem “New Utopia,” one of the many prose poems in the volume, offers the poet’s diagnosis: “
the new utopia dies standing. It sells both duty-free items and financial detox.” And he continues, foreseeing the limits of our multiculturalism and understanding: “the new utopia knows you can be an Arab and a Muslim, an Arab and not a Muslim, a Muslim and not an Arab. You can be Black without being White, White without being Black.” A superficial world made of commercial acceptance and multiculturalism only hides a reality of violence and discrimination that, at the first opportunity, reared its head again. It is this tension that sets off Bonvicino’s desire to describe what he sees, avoiding a coy sense of compassion or belonging, repeating the laser-cut language of advertising to display society’s failure. And whereas the poet does not offer answers, he offers a glimpse into what one would rather ignore. A favorite format in the collection is the building of lists that supposedly define a word or idea, but that inevitably gets lost in contradiction. The bilingual poem “Definitions of Brazil,” written in collaboration with the American poet Charles Bernstein, combines cliché descriptions of Brazil in a playful travel agency language –  Brazil is a baroque barcarolle with a bossa nova beat”– while also presenting the violent reality such sing song language supposedly hides  – “Under the veneer of its vivacity, Brazil is violent, a vile viper playing a violet viola.” A similar logic is also present in “it’s not looking great,” a despairing ode poem to the supermodel Kate Moss. Fashion, one of Bonvicino’s favorite metaphors for contemporary culture, where everything and everyone seems disposable, is at the center of the poem. In line with high modernism, Bonvicino recovers the referential and opaque style of a T. S. Eliot, which begs for footnotes that in his case are never offered. A litany of fashion brands and models are listed, creating a poem that though writing about pop culture turns out to be of difficult access. Playing with the poetical tradition, Eliot’s high-culture references are substituted by kitsch metaphors: “Cocaine, Kate / it’s not looking great! / Chanel bid you adieu / Burberry’s iced you!” As it develops, the poem grows in violence. We, like Kate Moss, live in a world of fantasy that cannot last. And what started as compassionate advice turns into condemnation: “So you feel like “Dracula”! You cosmopolitan flame! Cocaine Kate,
it’s not looking great!”
The selection of poems is presented as one great block with no divisions, though the poems follow the organization of their original publication in Portuguese, from Bonvicino’s most recent book Estado Crítico (Hedra, 2013), to Página Órfã (Martins Editora, 2007), and Remorso do Cosmos (de ter vindo ao sol) (Ateliê Editorial, 2003), tracing a decade of the poet’s work. Poems from each collection are easily recognizable by the changes in style and theme from one book to the next one, as well as by the recurrence of certain images and formal choices. That is, whereas the first part of the collection is thematically international, with poems such as “Paris, Barcelona,” “HongKong,” “Bone_Soupe@Neruda.com,” “A performing artist,” and “Glass,” offering a global test to the poet’s diagnoses; the second third of the book is centered in the poet’s city of São Paulo, and often returns to images of homelessness and the smell of carbon dioxide, in poems such as “The hamster’s way,” “In the morning,” “Residents,” and “Petroglyph.” The final part of the book features more enigmatic and lyric poems that reinvent flower and nature imagery, and explore an ornate lexicon, as in the poems “Fourth Poem,” Sixth Poem,” and the longer “Etc.” Still, all three parts of the book share Bonvicino’s linguistic jouissance and continuous search for a way – a form? – with which to face the world.
Translated by Charles Bernstein, Odile Cisneros, and Thérèse Bachand, the bilingual edition plays safe most of the time. The majority of the poems are translated by Cisneros and Bachand in solid translations that stay on the literal side of things and give a unity to Bonvicino’s work in English. Bernstein, a well-known poet and a creative translator, contributes only a few translations, but his bring forth a different side of the poet, his rhythmic ear and copywriting cut of language. Bernstein is a collaborator of Bonvicino and appears as co-author of two poems in the collection, which may explain his freedom. The two also co-edit edit the online international poetry magazine Sibila. The translators’ varied approaches to Bonvicino’s poetry, however, only attest to the challenge of this poetry, which, while it flirts with language and sound, is never devoid of meaning and social criticism.
--Marcelo Lotufo

March 6, 2017

Douglas Messerli / Lecture "Wrestling with Words" (on his collection of poetry books given to Chapman University)

wrestling with words

As I recently told members of both of Martin Nakell’s poetry classes, graduate and undergraduate, during the four weeks of my substitution for him: one of the most important ways to discover how to write poetry, other than experimenting with words themselves, is to read every book of poetry you can get your hands on—particularly by poets who challenge language and form, or who simply make you think. As I argued throughout these four weeks, for me the more complex a poem is, the better; a poet’s job is to wade into the waters of cold reality through language, and in order to do that, in order to better comprehend what “truth” is,  poets play and dance with words.

      Any one poetry course, moreover, is just the beginning of a true poet’s vocation. Reading outside of a room where you practice the art and share it with others, is a necessary task. And luckily, the students at Chapman have one of the best collections of poetry in the country—a fact I know not because I have mined the shelves of Leatherby Libraries, but because I gave a collection of thousands of books of poems (along with fiction by the likes of the wonderful fiction writer Rebecca Goldman and her poet-fiction-writing husband Martin Nakell—and incidentally Rebecca’s fiction was first pitched to me by the great Norwegian fiction writer and head of Norway’s PEN, Thorvald Steen, not by her devoted husband—including all the numerous critical books and poetic analyses of the previous speaker, Marjorie Perloff—who has also donated numerous volumes of poetry to Leatherby), and who, strange to say, was my mentor; and I say that knowing that the ageless woman you see there and the old man you see here, shouldn’t make that possible.
      There are far too many collections of poetry for me to simply give you all a list, so I will—if you bear with me—quickly try to take you on a whirlwind trip through some of the highlights of the collection, hinting through the names I drop how you might go on this literary journey through the library shelves.      First of all I might contextualize my very large collection by making it clear that, unlike some of our current politicians, I believe in a global perspective. If I have learned nothing else over the decades of my involvement as both writer and publisher of poetry, it is that writers across the continents have generally been more inventive and innovative than their American counterparts, spawning hundreds of groups and movements that changed literature in general and helped to explain, in new ways, vast events that took place in 20th land 21st-century Europe, Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. 
      My own presses, Sun & Moon and Green Integer explored through anthologies and volumes of individual collections a wide range of poetry from nearly every country on the planet. Besides my own 1,136-page From the Other joked was bigger than the Bangkok telephone book)—a very good place to start out on your voyage since it covers most of the interesting US figures through those years. My Green Integer press published eight volumes of international poets, some of them general, and others, such as no. 3 devoted to the poets of contemporary Brazil; no. 5 to innovative poetry in Southern California, including your teacher and me; no. 6 to a group of Dutch and Flemish poets who shortly after World War II began to radically explore the relationships between language and art in overlapping groups such as The Fiftiers—Remco Campert, Hugo Claus, Jan G. Elburg, Gerrit Kouwenaar, my own favorite Lucebert, Sybren Polet, Paul Rodennko, Bert Schierbert, and Simon Vinkenoog—and the international art group COBRA; and no. 7, devoted to young German poets who, at one time or another, held residencies at Villa Aurora, at the former home of German émigré Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta in Los Angeles, who played host to most of the German émigré artists during World War II: Bruno Frank, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, and numerous others.

      Directly related to the volumes of the Project for Innovative Poetry is my vast on-line PIP site, which contains extensive biographies of about 1,000 poets to date, with a complete listing of their books (in both the original languages and in translation) as well as small selections of the poems themselves. This site also includes definitions of various poetic groupings, magazines, publishers, and other related terms. Very shortly, we will be publishing our first on-line anthology of works by about 40 contemporary American poets, beginning with John Ashbery and ending with younger writers such as Joe Ross and Rod Smith.

      Also within the Messerli collection in this building are anthologies by other presses on French (several different volumes), German, Austrian, British, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Finnish, Danish, Dutch, Frisian, Belgian (in both Flemish and French), Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, Indonesian, Australian, New Zealand, several African countries, Indian (from numerous languages), poets of the Arab language, Israeli, Palestinian, Iranian, Canadian, Mexican, and various Central and South American countries (from not only Portuguese and Spanish languages but many other indigenous languages). There’s even an anthology of Surrealist works from the Canary Islands!

      And then there’s hundreds upon hundreds of individual collections, many of them original editions and a large number (such as the original copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) signed by their authors
      In many of these instances I have every single book that most of the important poets published; in other cases I have their major works only, but with odd finds that probably do not exist outside of the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library. From US poets alone I have major collections by early experimentalists such as Gertrude Stein, Marsden Hartley, and Ezra Pound; from the so-called Objectivists (Charles Reznikoff, Lorine Niedecker, Carl Rakosi, Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, and the British Basil Bunting); from the The Projectivists, Black Mountin, and San Francisco Renaissance poets (Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, the Canadian Robin Blaser, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, Larry Eigner, John Wieners, John Cage, Kenneth Irby, and Ronald Johnson), the New York School (Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Joseph Ceravolo, Ted Berrigan, Charles North, Ron Padgett, Michael Brownstein, Lewis Warsh, etc) to the L=A=N=G=U=A=E-affiliated writers such as Hannah Weinner, Susan Howe, British poet David Bromige, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Robert Grenier, Ted Greenwald, Bruce Andrews, Ray DiPalma, Michael Palmer, Bernadette Mayer, James Sherry, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Bob Perlman, and Charles Bernstein (who will be reading at Chapman in early May, at which time I will introduce him), as well as numerous important American writers not connected with any one “group,” Jackson Mac Low, Kenward Elmslie, Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin, Mac Wellman, Leslie Scalapino, Fanny Howe, and Tina Darragh).

      In single volumes my former collection is so extensive that it would nearly pointless to make up a list of names; Green Integer alone published some of the noted world poets in Adonis, Paul van Ostaijen, Paul Celan, Ko Un, Ingeborg Bachman, Oswald Egger, Dieter Gräf, and Nobel Prize winners Tomas Tranströmer and Nelly Sachs, to mention just a few. 
     I suggest you read around the anthologies first and then seek out the poets you like best or who speak to you through their individual collections. And don’t be afraid, of course, to take up some of my own poetry collections, those of Martin Nakell, and the wonderful poetic commentaries of Perloff.

     I will post this short talk on my PIP site as well so that you can begin to better assimilate all the names I’ve just thrown at you.
     For me and for most of the poets I like best, although it was a special time to explore, the classroom or poetry workshop is only the beginning of poetic life. I never read anything in my many years within the university compared with the hundreds and hundreds of volumes of poetry, fiction, and criticism I have read after leaving its confines. And, if you happen to stay in this area, you have now the added possibilities of the collections at Chapman and the extensive poetry collections of UCLA. 
      For anyone in this room you have my permission to drop me an email for a suggestion of what to read at any moment. That’s part of my gift to the Chapman community. And soon you will also be able to research the Green Integer archives—the correspondences and several manuscripts and corrections by these poets that go into making a book. There you’ll discover that most of these wonderful writers were real people, sometimes asking questions of their publisher-editor, sometimes just giving nice support to my projects, and often expressing their utter frustration with me and my staff. That’s the fun of it: I got to live with and meet hundreds of people, who like myself, had chosen to devote their lives to wrestling with language, trying to get behind the easy compromises we daily make with language, to comprehend the truth of the world in which they exist. Every day poets fight for the meaning so many others are ignored or forgotten. And that’s a tough but wonderful job which I commend to everyone.

Los Angeles, March 6, 2017
Delivered at a lecture at The American War Letters Archive, Leatherby Library, Chapman University (with Marjorie Perloff).