We define as a pest an organism that has an adverse effect on some resource 

management objective. (Pests of the Native Conifers)

 

The line of kitchen ants begins after the rains. This year, fewer ants because of the drought. They are still underground. When they return, they will go with variable forwardness past the houseplants, past the drawer of spoons.  The antvant-garde would not be a frontal phalanx taking the first hits but an assemblage of multidirectional outriders from a large colony of discoverers, performing secret local actions, tucked-in searches, making codes below & bringing them up to the streets. The search is mazelike crypto-realism; nothing about it is profitable but is (mostly) sustaining to the group. The search would involve shared chthonic behaviors, significant to many, & would serve the beginner as well as the accomplished worker of the colony. 

 

Now as always the impulses of poetry tangle in a mysterious & rhizomatic manner.  The models are often epic. Poets imagine the ideals of their art individually & collectively; they configure its involvements with social & political matters, with intrigues of the soul (the process & the verb), with the conundrum of visible & invisible features of environments; they are not always bound to terrified egos but bring together the marginalized, the outcast, the shamanic, the rejected, the witchlike, the visionary, the musically confused. Poetry escapes from the dysfunctions of profiteers, to surprise, to shake up & to bear emotional strength from within, to push the notion that any future world includes the dispersal of itself & then the dying away. Its practitioners are not troubled by the idea that other forms of life are eternally swirling or entwined in its roots, particulate & distributed from its branches like a very fine gold pollen. A few workers go to the edges. They send along information in sincere chemicals. They pass it on & if we are they, we learn about the sealed honey jar; it is news. 

 

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Is there an avant-garde in poetry now, a working-at-the-edges that can claim to be more necessary than the products of its fellows? The question is not resolvable. There is no front line, so the battlefield image may need to be visually reconstructed into a playground. Historically, aesthetic avant-gardes have challenged definitions of art from the margins of culture, in part because their practitioners have agreed on principles that set them apart, that give them a sense of collective enterprise in an embattled way, in response to specific conventions they oppose. As a result of one hundred years of modernism, we now have a much more tolerant & lively situation for most of the arts, including poetry. Although friendship groups of poets still might be gathering because of shared affinities (conceptual poets being one), the metaphor of one group of restless rebels fighting at the aesthetic fringes no longer describes 

poetic practice in the last few decades. For one thing, explorations in the art have become increasingly diverse & various; their diversity renders moot many previous models of isolation & separateness. One young Oakland poet friend responded (when i asked him whether there is a poetic avant-garde), “There might be one somewhere, but to belong to it now would be uncool.” His most beloved poet is Jack Spicer. Spicer is part of the new normal. If after 1913 Modernist poetry seemed to split between those who took more psychological or expressive approaches to the art & those who followed more cognitive & perceptual directions, the split has been braided thoroughly with endless crossovers & blurrings in the last hundred years.

 

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Cooking times vary. For 2 potatoes, cook 12-14 minutes. Potatoes may whistle while in microwave. (instructions on O-Organic potato wrapper)

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Not only have the categories exchanged energies, there have been notable paradigm shifts in how artists value the idea of “the latest thing.” As soon as there is a bit of the new, it is reTweeted. The stylistic & social properties that have made modernist texts modern— as well as the ironic playfulness of postmodernist texts— are quite familiar by now. The Eighties happened then the Nineties happened & there are thousands of experimental poets & artists & the Internet is the greatest arcade project of all. The favored prefix is post-. Stylistic experimentation is international & multicultural. i met some poets in Myanmar who were reading Kenny Goldsmith & Sylvia Plath at the same time. Though we live increasingly under state surveillance, poetry has benefited from the unobstructed inclusiveness that offers a bewildering variety of techniques for our magnificent art. Likewise, what used to be called “mainstream” consists of many rivulets, flowing into the world’s five [rising] oceans. This doesn’t mean that truly wonderful poetry is any easier to find.

 

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It’s probably just my, like, mind telling me that. (in a café in Oakland)

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Older concepts of avant-garde can seem honorific or they can isolate work that could be considered in more generous terms. A poet friend recently told me he’d rather be a cowboy poet than a member of a vanguard. No elitism for him. Baudelaire did not want to be called “Symboliste” & in fact his alleged break with romanticism has been greatly exaggerated; he extended directions to include under, in back of. The edges of a vanguard ceaselessly shift from single to multiple like the margins of a Mark Rothko painting, & then something more playful, forgiving, inconsistent or non-hierarchical happens, introducing a tide of other lines, pop art after abstract expressionism. The margins are folded in to the population, & it does not take long. i began this piece on the 20th anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain, April 5, 2014. Leather jackets with chrome punk wrist studs were sold in Macy’s before he had been absorbed into the smell of teen spiritual heaven. 

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documentary poetry, flarf, trance poetics, anti-capitalism, alchemy. astropoetics, hydropoetics, conceptual poetry.

 

broken lyric, lyric abstraction. post-Language, post-Ashbery, post-New York school. 

 

fine book-making of fewer than 200 copies. ecopoetics. pine tree our sister, weather, fire in the south, microbes on the lion, ripgut brome.

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Yet, though “avant-garde” might seem a less relevant term now, the concept retains a moving & elegiac significance for a life of art as well as for imaginative lives in general. Perhaps there should simply be more names for what the avant-garde once stood for: an edgy, mongrel, defiant, animating inventiveness. If what we lose from giving up on avant-garde is a sense of the elite specialness & isolation of certain practices, what we gain from preserving the concept is a deep & intimate connection between art & vibrant life, plus all the values of oppositional stances.  Beyond the limitations of the term, “avant-garde” even in elegy suggests a vitality that art & human life can usefully draw from, something that is more significant than any single word can convey, as the word “bohemian” once did, calling for people to live poetically in the spirit of shared imaginative enterprise, to push back against the dull or acceptable, to collaborate in defying convention, to experiment in interpreting the facts of the quotidian & to make interventions into the rest of the culture. 

 

The general legacy of avant-gardes includes many procedures of uncertainty & openness (as Marjorie Perloff’s useful term “indeterminacy” suggests), the importance of process & play, & an assumption of rule-breaking & innovation at the level of form. To acknowledge the significance of this legacy is to recognize that it is more forceful than a fringe; it is a chosen way to be human & free within the radical imagination. It has implications for all of culture.  Charles Altieri has stated it thus:  “Freedom of subject positions to be anybody or everybody; freedom in relation to the object because the imagination is not bound to how perception involves foregrounds and backgrounds and causes; freedom of selection that can elaborate intricacy and intimacy far beyond the practical perceptual order, the only evidence is self-evidence for imagination—which is a source of both freedom and anxiety . . . ” (correspondence).   The real question this brings up is not so much that of which coteries & manifestos make aesthetic claims, but of how to maintain an active principle of investigation, not so much avant as ancient: how to live in a poetry mind collectively & individually with the what & the why around us.

  

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 HD to an interviewer: “I think there is one young man in California who reads my poetry.”  

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In fact, most works of art come less from aesthetically pure theories than from corrupted, impure, secretive, inconsistent, doubtful, sullied individual practices of trail [sic] & error. Marjorie Welish: “What you do becomes a critique of your own professing” (conversation). Manifestoes that emerge from a sense of shared enterprise & ideals can seem confident or self-regarding or naïve, can inspire for much longer than the movements themselves might last. Reading Breton’s Surrealist manifestoes with their fierce claims for the dream-natures of humans—Freudian theory is still new to the world at that time—is like overhearing a smart child planning to erect a tent with couch cushions in the living room. How to break with tradition in service of art & humanity is mostly what avant gardes want to propose, & there is something terrifically moving about the wide-spiritedness of that. Over time, some avantistos become subject to humorless fundamentalism, all black shirts & no smiles. 

 

Every poet needs a group. If their poems don’t resemble the period styles, poets seek company. Rimbaud finds Verlaine, Niedecker finds Zukofsky. Lucretius & the atoms, Du Fu & the stones, Hildegard & the eyes, Herbert & the wings, Smart & cat Geoffrey, Hölderlin & the gods, Blake & the angels, Clare & the fields, Baudelaire & Paris, Whitman & the self, Dickinson & the soul, Hopkins & the hawk, Mallarmé & the dice, Pound & the pagans, Eliot & the Unreal, Stevens & the Real, Breton & the Surreal, Césaire & the stars, HD & the Lady, Stein & the sentence, Kharms & Vvedensky, Helen Adam & ballads, Celan & the ruptures, Vallejo & the jail, Oppen & the numerous, Duncan & Jess, Spicer & phonemes, Wieners & the nerves; Baraka & the blast; Dragomoshenko & Lyn, O’Hara & the Guest—

 

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What is most modern in our time frequently turns out to be the most archaic (Guy Davenport).

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When i settled in the Bay Area a few decades back, there was great aesthetic diversity that is still found here today:  personal expressive poetry beside Beat-inspired poetry, performance poetry beside ecological poetry; visual concrete poetry beside Language poetry; meditative or narrative poetry from various modernist stems; poetry of lyric abstraction & poetry of radical surrealism. Now this diversity is not just a West Coast phenomenon; many poetic 

communities exhibit a lively inclusiveness & the coexistence of many modernist & post-modernist impulses, & indeed it is an exciting time for the art. In the Bay Area, the influence of the San Francisco Renaissance writers is still strongly felt & provides a basis for innovation that is exploratory & adventurous. From them emerged many freedoms: stylistic, emotional & political (i refer the reader to Michael Davidson’s great book on the subject). Current radical political poetry & ecological poetry couldn’t exist without Kenneth Rexroth’s vision & his friendship group; in the Forties, he invited socialist Petaluma chicken farmers to his living room, espousing free expressiveness; he brought together anarchist politics, bio-regionalism, western & eastern mythology, performance, & an emphasis on the materiality of words.  Rexroth demonstrated how destructive capitalism & damage to earth are connected. His influence can be seen in the writings of poets that followed—including Helen Adam, Robert Duncan, William Everson, Allen Ginsberg, Madeline Gleason, Joanne Kyger, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Richard O. Moore, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer & many others who drew inspiration from his ideas, & his influence is inexhaustibly felt on the West Coast & elsewhere. 

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All poetry is experimental. (Barbara Guest).

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Aesthetic movements can seem historically very masculine & do not always consider women’s experience; a woman in my prosody class recently started laughing after saying “Projective Verse” with a forward thrust of her body. Women’s experimental writing in the Bay Area in the Eighties & Nineties offered many more choices than we had ever imagined, but rather than avant, it felt like a mille-front & mille-font garde; there was an emphasis on perception from Williams & the Objectivists & an emphasis on the visual derived from Mallarmé, but women were at the helm of the bateau, announcing freedom to write poems that were fragmentary, unfinished, oblique, partial, nonlinear, marginal, quasi-referential, process-oriented, enchanted, alchemical, spiritualist, incantatory, ill-behaved; the freedom to fray the phrase, to love ecological poetry & the constructed text; to prefer one’s own authority to manifestoes addressed to worshipful followers. There is no such thing as a feminist style but there is women’s experience & it is not bound to any particular definition of experiment or innovation: Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Sylvia Plath, Barbara Guest, Denise Levertov & Adrienne Rich. Em Press, How(ever), Kelsey Street Press & Rooms, (http://dalegoing.com/page46/page6/page6.html) revolutionized women’s publishing & American poetics. It is in that spirit of “ground-breaking” that women of Occupy Oakland brought poetry outside, to read during strikes, next to the cart with the free library, a dispersal garde with oblique poems in the hands of Alli, Caroline, Casey, Gillian, Janet, Jessica, Jessie, Joanna, Judith, Juliana, Kelly, Lara, Lauren, Lindsey, Melissa, Melissa, Miranda, Nora, Sam, Sara, Sara, Sara (Angie in Mainz, dreaming of Oakland). 

 

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Have had a grief formation since Occupy. The spirits stand round in their bristly ovals.  Basalt, granite & squirrels on them. Flavoparmelia caperata. Crows. (journal entry)

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The news leaves its “ghostlier demarcations,” its tracks of breath like neutrinos that will be absorbed, & poets make the poems they want to read, make a press, make a ’zine, a reading series.  If there are dispersal-chthonic-gardes now, they would be experiential, emotional & unstable rather than consistent & programmatic. They would be in a circle; (the opposite of a circle is: a =$=$=$=$=$=$=$=$=$=>> Keystone pipeline). If the dispersal gardes exist, they would be in the Bay Area & Brooklyn & Berlin & Burma, poets with tender warm bodies on the floor, the sweet, crazy ones, the introverts, the MFA students, the balky antinomians & renegades & the entranced, the drunk & the sober—inventing their customs & traditions at Studio One, at Woolsey Street, at UPB, at Buuck’s, in Sharon’s garden, at SPD & Omnidawn, at Moe’s, at East Bay Public School, at City Lights, at Beyond Baroque, at Counterpoint, at Chax Press, at Open Books, at Wave, at Flood, at Woodland Pattern, at Sten’s & Emily’s, at Berl’s Poetry Bookshop, at St. Marks, at Village Voice in Paris, at Pansodan in Yangon, between sounds of vowels in a thousand rooms & streets. 

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Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away

           And lovers

    Must I be reminded

Joy came always after pain

                         — Guillaume Apollinaire (trans. Revell)

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A rhizomatic-radical undergarde might include social & political activism. (Might not . . . did Gertrude Stein lean politically left? Uh, that would be a No.)  The rhizomatic undergarde would be entangled with language not just from the impulses of Surrealists & Objectivists & Negritude poets & OuLiPians but the particulate sprinklings of Shelleyist activism. To subvert the law on purpose or by accident: dear John Clare, crossing the hedgerows during the Enclosure Acts: “The thunder mutters louder and more loud / With quicker motion hay folks ply the rake”; to capture something from Blake to Baudelaire through the 20th century & its annihilation. Rexroth called for great learning & also called poets & artists to stand with the oppressed, the depressed, & the impoverished. If the image of restless rebels rarely pertains to writing that has realized modernism & postmodernism, it is still relevant when it comes to protesting unacceptable economic structures, fracking, the Keystone pipeline, student debt, the underpayment of workers & endless injustices. Poets have been at the forefront in Occupy street protests & anti-capitalist direct actions; their resistance has included rituals, trances & games against corporate dominance & the destruction of earth. When it is time for the hurt ones to rise up, they will do so & the poets will rise with them too. Nonhuman pioneer forms exist from the decaying branch, slow lichens made of a twin existence; they were here in advance of the postscript. Organic bacteria on cobs of GMO corn. Valences. The next forms will include odd outriders as fully concerned with the poem as the program at the end of the Anthropocene, include infiltrators & bearers of extra energy, to disperse it, to make it more lively & demotic so it can thrive.  

 

Berkeley April-June 2014

 
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