Tag Archives: Summer 2015

Feeding on The Sea-God’s Herb: An Interview with John Domini


photo by Eric J. Hermann

by Linda Lappin

John Domini’s work has been featured in Paris Review, The New York Times, and numerous other outlets. He is a versatile, genre-crossing author, and has published several books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry over the course of his prolific career. The organizations that have honored his work include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Iowa Arts Council, and he has been an artist-in-residence multiple times with Italy’s Festival delle Storie. He currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa.

Domini’s new collection of critical essays, The Sea-God’s Herb (Dzanc Books, $15.95), sets out to celebrate and define post-modernism in the novel from a fiction writer’s point of view. It fills a gap in contemporary criticism, as essays and reviews of experimental American fiction are rare. The Sea-God’s Herb is a vast book, touching on many issues, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss a few of them with the author.

Linda Lappin: Among the distinguishing characteristics of experimental fiction you mention is the writer’s willingness to breaks molds in terms of prose and structure. Surely the 1970s were a great era for iconoclasm in many areas of our culture, from politics to fashion and much else. What has happened to our mindset and our reading habits? Why are we afraid of the new and different when once we used to thrive on it? Or is that changing?

sea-godsherbJohn Domini: The question suggests a monster squid, its home hidden, its arms everywhere. I mean that as a compliment, but I doubt I’ll manage to grab but one or two tentacles. I can say for starters that responsiveness to literary experiment doesn’t break down usefully into decades, but is better understood as a challenge that too many American critics have failed to meet for a good half-century now. That’s my argument in Sea-God, expressed both in my selection and, especially, in the lead essay, “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain.’” Over that same half-century, success in all the arts has been measured more and more oppressively by money and numbers. The hammer of Big Capital has come down hard; just ask any young American trying to make their mark in music. In music, though, even a corporate party like the Grammys will have room for work as outré as Beck’s. In theater, even Broadway will celebrate a mooncalf like Angels in America. U.S. publishing, however, and with it the established venues of literary criticism, still tends to hold the unconventional at arm’s length. Such a situation interferes with a willing reader’s appreciation of the rich adjustments storytelling has made to the sharp turns and sudden crevices of our times. In effect, it robs story of its continuing purpose: to steer us through those turns, and to bridge those crevices.

LL: Where would you situate your own fiction in the “New Republic of Long Narrative,” as you call the contemporary literary landscape? I was intrigued by your suggestion that postmodern experiments often “reveal their own devising.” Could you comment on that with regards to one of your own fiction projects?

JD: Ah, what writer doesn’t love this question? “Enough about those other guys; let’s talk about you!” I’ll try for restraint. For starters I’ll note that a lot of my own fiction isn’t so experimental as that of many folks I investigate in Sea-God. To mention just one, Carole Maso; her Aureole presents more of a challenge to conventional story and language than any of my novels and all but one or two of my shorter pieces. Okay, my Talking Heads: 77 includes the recurring “layout & pasteup,” pretty out there; the Naples novels too, Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb On the Periphery, occasionally poke up into a rarified atmosphere. Nonetheless, my fiction derives essential nutrients from social awareness; it generates drama from the history, the demographics, the economics. Nothing wrong with that; nothing you won’t find done better in, say, DeLillo’s The Names—and to point out such real-world concerns in DeLillo or Maso takes us back to the main argument of Sea-God, namely, that so-called experimental fiction isn’t in fact divorced from this trying experiment we call daily life. That said, I should add that just now, I’m po-mo in utero—in 2016, Dzanc will bring out my wildest yet, a story sequence titled Movieola!

LL: I loved your definition of your younger ’70s self as “Beat-besotted, Dylan-dreaming, Kafka-cantankerous, and Melville-megalomaniacal.” You were publishing reviews and other work back then in very prestigious places. What dreams did you have about the writer’s life, the writer’s role in community/society/academia or elsewhere—and how has it all panned out?

JD: I figured I’d be Vladimir Nabokov by now! Okay, joke, but isn’t that a fitting response to our fledgling dreams? As for how it’s panned out—it’s a letdown, inevitably, though my ups and downs are pretty typical: economic and romantic crises, editors and others who sometimes lent a hand and sometimes slapped me down. I guess what I find most interesting about your question is the hybrid construction “community/society/academia.” I did have such a thing in mind when I was starting out, and I did conceive of criticism as a way I could help raise a roof-beam or put down a decent road for all of us sensitive to fiction’s changing shapes. I perceived such a program for myself, and I’ve stuck with it since. So there’s that.

LL: I was a bit taken back by a comment you make about fiction by American women writers: “Fiction about a woman’s place in the world has tended to omit the spiritual, the Unknowable.” That’s an interesting perception, which I don’t personally share; it suggests that women writers tend to see the novel as springing from social rather than spiritual concerns. In your view, why is this so?

JD: Ow. Can I claim context, here? That line is in a long essay about a woman writer, Jaimy Gordon—an essay trying, among other things, to win her a wider readership. Around the statement there are other factors in play, like Gordon’s age and generation, plus of course the argument of my book as a whole. And while I’m getting all blustery and defensive, I’ll add that the editors and I made changes in order to include more women; we didn’t want a Boys Club. Okay. But I appreciate the question; it means my Sea-God has initiated a conversation, even if the give and take pains me a bit. It means I’ve contributed a bit to that community etc. I just mentioned, by raising such questions. As for your more provocative notion re: women’s fiction “springing from social rather than spiritual concerns,” I suppose that could be taken as an implication in the Gordon essay. I’d be leery of such a sweeping pronunciamento, myself, but maybe my book isn’t. In any case the argument seems to call for—yes!—another essay. Someone ought to raise the banner of, say, Sylvia Plath, and under it lead the Anti-Dominians out to battle. I only hope I live to see it.

LL: Not very many women writers are mentioned in your book, and in fact, there just aren’t that many contemporary experimental women writers that have achieved national recognition. There could be very many different reasons for that. One thing that came to my mind, with regards to my initial question, is that many innovative women writers privilege one or the other (Arundhati Roy, for example, or Anais Nin), structure or prose, but not both at the same time, which would place them outside the camp as you define it. Do women writers tend to be more conservative? Is it harder for a woman to affirm herself as an experimental writer? Do publishers tend to take more seriously male experimental writers than female?

JD: My previous answer touched on this subject. The editors and I cared about including women, though of course we were limited to what I’d published. I didn’t have anything on Aimee Bender, for instance, and her fabulism would’ve felt at home. What’s more, since the book appeared, I’ve written on iconoclastic texts by women like Jenny Erpenbeck, books that would address your concern. Still, this question brings up a larger issue, namely, how commercial publishers tend to view outside-the-box stories and novels from women—which is askance at best. Again, we can all think of exceptions, but insofar as Sea-God calls mainstream American editors and reviewers to task for their aversion to risk-taking, the complaint also applies to how they’ve treated women writers. Not long ago I heard Carole Maso open up, with admirable frankness, about the difficulty she still has getting published. What does that tell you?

LL: You conclude with an essay on Dante and the archetypal storytelling patterns we find buried in narratives. Could you say something about your own relationship to Italian classics and how they have influenced your own fiction?

JD: First, I ought to point out that one critic has already claimed the Dante essay feels shoehorned in. It just won’t fit, says he, and the God—or Goddess—of lit-crit may agree. If so, all this mere mortal can do is reiterate the point made in the preface, namely that the essay belongs both for its unearthing a less than obvious narrative in the poem, and for how it connects that strange narrative to our ordinary cares and joys. Like all the other pieces in Sea-God, it argues for the humanity of challenging literature. Now, in my mind’s eye and ear, that very claim sounds Italian. Even at its most baroque, so highly wrought as to seem solely about itself, Italian work has always conveyed something of the street, garden, kitchen, and, of course, the bedroom. Even the infinitely brainy Da Vinci reveals, in his Madonnas and saints, that he knows suffering and passions, and asserts their centrality in his art. I could work up a whole new essay, one that explained, also, how I’m holding off on the Naples trilogy of Elena Ferrante, until I can take a good long run at her work in Italian. Still, once more I’ll rein myself in, and mention just one figure who’s lately meant a lot to me: Eduardo De Filippo, the masterful Neapolitan playwright (and more, of course). Every time I’m in southern Italy, it seems, I’m bowled over by yet another of his plays. The one Americans might’ve heard of is These Ghosts (1946), which John Turturro brought to Broadway. No one who sees it can go on believing that the Latin Americans invented magical realism—or that something groundbreaking formally can’t also prove heartbreaking.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Poptimism vs. Rockism: An Interview with Eric Weisbard

by Dylan Hicks

One of the sharpest music critics to become prominent in the 1990s, Eric Weisbard wrote for Spin, the Village Voice, and the New York Times, and edited, with Craig Marks, 1995’s enduringly useful Spin Alternative Record Guide (whose contributors include future novelists Colson Whitehead and James Hannaham). He’s also the founder and organizer of the EMP Pop Conference—an annual gathering of music scholars, journalists, practitioners, and professionals that has helped shape critical discourse since its inception in 2002—and has edited three collections of presentations from the conference.

Weisbard’s inventively researched and subtly argued new book, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music (University of Chicago Press, $27.50), looks at postwar popular music through the formats radio programmers and record companies developed to present it. It’s in part a celebration of the yield from these “rival mainstreams.” In his introduction, Weisbard recalls wondering “how the range of hits produced by the supposedly stifling corporate structures of radio and records effortlessly—and without an ounce of idealism required—exceeded rock in its range of sounds, artists, audience, and creativity. Could one account for this, but also for the fact that so much eclecticism had been met with so much scorn?”

We conducted this conversation over a few hours via email, Weisbard responding from Tuscaloosa, where he is an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.

DYLAN HICKS: Top 40 Democracy, among other things, reframes the contraries known as “rockism” and “poptimism.” Because some readers might not be familiar with these terms, I’ll attempt a summary, which you might need to correct. Rockism (typically defined by its opponents) endorses certain humanist, bohemian, folky, and jazz ideals—authenticity, individualism, autonomy, rebellion, incorruptibility—and favors modes of operation thought to be common to the more celebrated post-Dylan-and-Beatles rock artists: playing, for instance, self-penned, self-expressive songs on relatively traditional instruments in real time, or at least using the studio to simulate live performance; following artistic rather than commercial impulses, or, short of that, cloaking or ironizing venality. The poptimist view—more fashionable over the past decade or so—highlights the frequent spuriousness of rock’s authenticity claims; points to sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism explicit or implicit in rockism; and shows how radio pop, despite its mutating rigidities, has often welcomed difference. “Top 40 needs to be understood as a format of outsiders opting in,” you write, “where rock prized opting out.” While not necessarily rejecting the rock canon, poptimism argues that the blanket dismissal of mainstream pop—or pop’s “rival mainstreams,” in your formulation—is inherently antidemocratic and sociologically incurious; poptimism encourages the guilt-free enjoyment of well-wrought mass culture, posits that pop’s demand for novelty often spurs innovation, and sees the artistic advantages of the division-of-labor approach.

By studying the commercial music that has flourished on postwar radio, you examine the rockist/poptimist divide through a different, perhaps broader opposition—that between format and genre. Could you describe this opposition and why it particularly compelled you?

top40ERIC WEISBARD: When I started this project, as a history dissertation for UC Berkeley, my hope was to bring what history gives us—archival research, the chance to see things with the advantages of hindsight, an emphasis on working historiographically in conversation with other scholars—to bear on the rockism debate that Kelefa Sanneh’s New York Times article had inspired. The EMP Pop Conference had shown me how much revisionist popular music studies scholarship already existed, or was in process: Eric Lott, Elijah Wald, Richard Peterson, Guthrie Ramsey, Jr., Marybeth Hamilton, and many others. But nobody had looked at the years since the late 1960s with the same interest in replacing the kinds of distinctions that work when you’re writing about music in the present tense (good versus bad, progressive versus reactionary) with the perspectives we gain a generation or two later.

I decided that the way to do that was to write case studies of artists, radio stations, and record labels associated with music formats. Formats, the biggest of which in the 1970s and after have been Top 40, Adult Contemporary, country, rock, and R&B (with Latin joining in from the late 1990s as a big player), are a way for advertisers to reach a targeted set of listeners via a playlist of songs designed to please those listeners—to sing to them. The music doesn’t come first, at least not aesthetically: a demonstrably successful, which is to say profitable, act of cultural commerce does. That’s what makes formats different from genres, which value a coherent set of sounds as opposed to an identifiable audience. What makes studying formats so important is that this was the mechanism by which cultural industries, and the artists working within them, actually managed to accomplish something in music that didn’t happen so much in other categories of culture. Music created multiple, overlapping, and sometimes rival, mainstreams: different ways to feel normal at the same time. Formats are the structural underpinning of the world that poptimists celebrate and rockists deplore.

DH: Commercial radio stations are of necessity trying to please listeners, as you say, as well as sponsors. Sometimes their core listeners—genre partisans—will have interests at odds with those sponsors. An advertiser might prefer a smaller audience of big spenders, or a wider audience containing a somewhat disgruntled base. Several radio formats—country and R&B, for instance—need to maintain cultural, racial, and class affiliations while convincing advertisers that their listeners have an attractive amount of disposable income. So country radio needs genre signifiers—some steel guitars, some honky-tonk themes—but also needs to be genteel enough to court more prosperous listeners or at least convey an air, as it were, of prosperity. Your chapter on Dolly Parton, Nashville, and country radio tracks this constant push-pull between genre and format, past and present, idealism and pragmatism, what you call Parton’s “duet with modernity: impudence toward tradition and incorporation of heritage.” We saw these dichotomies in play when the neo-traditionalist acts of the ’80s—George Strait, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, John Anderson, and the rest—revived country after the crossover boom ebbed. “Country the genre,” you write, “was saving country the format.” But we’ve seen this in many instances, yes?

EW: Every format has a different shape to it: uses music differently, because the audience that it speaks loudest to has different needs. So where rock, a format and a genre, rages against the machine—pretends to never be standardized, just as its listeners fantasize freedom from the norm—country has a more mixed set of ambitions. Country artists routinely thank country radio and “the industry” at awards shows. And that isn’t just cowardice: the “bulldozer South” C. Van Woodward wrote about, with its goals of modernizing and mainstreaming the nation’s most backward region, finds its voice in country at its slickest and most formatted. That’s the Dolly Parton who goes on the cover of Playboy, parties with drag queens, has country pop hits about checking out the sex party three doors down. But of course, Parton is also the traditionalist who records bluegrass albums and weepers with Victorian sentiments, who returns to the South from Hollywood in the mid-1980s to start Dollywood. And Nashville does the same thing: swings from moments that emphasize pop to moments that emphasize genre ties. Gender, I found, plays an interesting role in all of this. Men who cross over from country tend to flirt with rock: another genre, so their hardcore cred is not in question. Women who cross over flirt with AC or Top 40, so they are seen as impure!

DH: Yeah, exactly, and that’s one of the threads running through your book: condescension toward female taste, seen in sexist discourse to be capricious, undiscerning. Teenage boys refashion themselves as rebels or connoisseurs and abandon Top 40 to girls. Adult contemporary is dismissed as background music for Emma Bovary or Bridget Jones.

EW: One of the key stories of mainstream music that has never been told this way came to me as I researched A&M Records. From the late 1960s to late 1970s, nearly every artist that A&M turned into a smash seller—Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Carpenters, Captain & Tennille, Peter Frampton—fell with as much velocity as they rose. They were pop bubbles. And this turned out to be rooted in gender issues: male scorn for performers identified with women. When middle of the road music (the MOR format) became AC, adult contemporary, and that category solidified, more than just a name change was involved. The image of the female listener shifted in the industry’s mind: from a housewife to a white-collar office worker. And when that happened, some (not all) of the belittling went away. Performers like Sting, an AC perennial on A&M, or the label’s later discovery Sheryl Crow, fit the revised format. That’s kind of revolutionary, but none of our musical values let us see it that way.

DH: Your chapter on Cleveland’s pathbreaking station WMMS surveys rock radio from the often wistfully recalled days of freeform FM through a host of subsequent approaches, most notably an album-oriented rock attuned to the declining prospects of the city’s industrial worker and typified by Bruce Springsteen. Looking to grow revenue in ’83, the station transitioned from a rock station to a much more racially and otherwise mixed blend of rock and Top 40; by ’85, it was identifying as contemporary hit radio (CHR), the new industry term for Top 40. Much of the station’s male, working-class base was alienated, which leads you to raise one of the book’s many stimulating, unanswerable questions. “Was it politically progressive, given rock’s legacy of racism and sexism, or regressive, given the anti-working-class sales goals, for WMMS to play Michael Jackson?” It seems that part of the pleasure of writing this book was the chance to hold and deepen such uncertainties.

EW: That’s where rock is such a great subject for poptimism. Obviously, rock is pop: Metallica hold the all-time SoundScan albums record for their 1991 untitled album. Just as obviously rock is anti-pop: Metallica fans would mostly rather die than listen to the rival album, Shania Twain's Come on Over. We can view that as elitism, but the truth is that for Metallica to replace Led Zeppelin as the core artist of the mainstream rock format meant that working class white male listeners continued to demand a music that spoke to them. And the only company eager to provide that was the much demonized Clear Channel, now iHeartRadio, the megachain, which worked out a way to make enough ad money doing so. None of the more indie radio stations could do that—or at least none wanted to. When you bear down on the details of different mainstream sounds, seeing the histories and choices involved in creating and sustaining them, simplistic ideas about why radio should “take more chances” or some such tend to fade away pretty quickly. When broadcasters manage to numb us with repetition, some kind of cultural perspective has gained a political victory. Figure out who the winners (and losers) are: that’s better pop criticism than judging everything against some Pitchfork standard of good taste.

DH: Your chapter on the long, protean career of the Isley Brothers raises questions about how we evaluate continuity versus change, innovation verses trend-spotting. On one hand, we lionize restless artists who maintain a recognizable identity while shaping and reflecting their time—think of Miles Davis’s many incarnations from bop sideman to pioneer fusionist. On the other hand, relative changelessness is often seen as a sign of integrity. There’s something wonderfully inspiring about the Isley Brothers’ career: only a few of their records were unmistakably innovative, but they always seemed to come back around—Zeligs, as you say—with a necessary reflection of the Zeitgeist. That sort of responsiveness is undervalued.

EW: Rock and rollers remember the Isleys for fast songs: “Shout,” “Twist and Shout.” And they pleased everybody with “It's Your Thing” and “Fight the Power,” anthems of individualism and resistance designed to cross in all directions. But soul fans alone, which is to say a black public being given a national mainstream experience in the 1970s—by Soul Train, by slick LPs from Columbia Records that merited a good stereo system and spoke to the validation of corporate investment, by Frankie Crocker’s urban contemporary radio approach—soul fans remember something else. They remember slow songs designed to be heard in the bedroom. Songs you could rely on for romance and black communal identity. A formatted experience, but no less of a raced experience. The Isleys were all over the place during their career. But this moment was their most important, the place where in a way they stopped experimenting and found their formula. Formulaic music is malleable: hip-hop could sample the Isley Brothers, which is to say that music designed to sound classy appealed across the class divisions that threatened, but never overcame, African American identity.

DH: It seems that thinking about outsize celebrity ambition has softened. Growing up, I loved Elton John, Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, and other extremely successful pop stars who grew up poor and show up in your book, but I also thought there was something ridiculous, something psychologically and morally dubious about their hunger for ever more fame and wealth. That fairly typical view was partly democratic, partly elitist. Treating developments during the Internet-fueled decline of the music business, you write, “the rockist rejection of established format categories accrued resale value because its putative anti-materialism asserted privilege. Musicians who lacked hit records and blamed tight radio playlists earned substantial licensing revenues when advertisers paid for their aura of exclusivity.”

It doesn’t seem that Beyoncé, for instance, is viewed quite in the light that skeptics, even skeptical fans, might have viewed earlier pop superstars. That’s progress for nuanced thinking, but perhaps a defeat as well?

EW: Commercial radio formats, and the major record labels that diversified to feed them, solidified around 1973, the most egalitarian moment for wealth balances in American history. It’s gotten worse since then, sometimes dramatically, and music formats are caught up in that story, as are pop superstars. Indie culture now reads as networked elite culture, which is to say the Mac from Superchunk who sang “Slack Motherfucker” is now the Mac from Merge Records helping revive Durham, North Carolina around notions of a creative-class economy. In a similar vein, Elton John used to be judged for betraying rock to seek Top 40; didn’t help that he was not out for much of the 1970s, so the ways in which sexuality informed his decision were either invisible to commentators or off the record. These days, we are beyond taking the Keith Richards position that Elton’s glamor and glitz sacrificed true artistry. We are more inclined to see how glamor and glitz is actually populist in a certain sense, at least compared to the hipster stuff that can be reinterpreted as premium product: like buying your cheese from Whole Foods. Is that a defeat? That’s one of the most challenging questions that Top 40 democracy presents to its critics. How do you oppose, in the name of cultural politics, a system that’s built on inclusivity, without embracing exclusivity?

DH: Discussions of mass culture invariably debate the extent to which taste is industrially manipulated or popularly developed. One standard teenage rant against pop is that it’s pabulum: record and radio execs use precedent, focus groups, and big budgets to manufacture hits, and the babyish general public acquiesces to repeated exposure and peer pressure. (A more generous, populist version says that people want more variety and challenge, but the industry won’t give it to them.) Of course, if the public were so malleable, the industry’s hits-to-misses ratio would presumably be higher, and obviously hits are often unexpected and indisputably audience-driven. What changes do you see in this regard so far during this century? The industry has access to more sophisticated research, but listeners and artists have many more ways to hear and promote music.

EW: I see no change in the cultural dynamic that created Top 40: the story, told again and again, about the waitress paying her own money into the jukebox to hear songs she’d heard all day long. Top 40, the format within all the other formats, has been the biggest winner of all in the 21st century on radio. Every new technological measurement teaches us that people want to hear familiar music from a relatively diverse set of sources. And the artists who can provide it—the singers, writers, producers, A&R people, sometimes combinations of all those categories—are finding levels of success that put almost all past music industry stories to shame, even as we are told that the Internet has destroyed everything.

Now, the devil is in the details: is my familiar music, meaning music that we can remember together and feel connected by, your oppressively overplayed crap? Is what I call relatively diverse something you call standardized to a fault? These are eternal questions. What I hope I’ve added is a sense of the perspective that comes by taking a longer view than the industry, or its critics, are used to taking. And from that perspective, this whole notion of commercial music as a structured form of marketing difference, mainstreaming group identity around songs and performers who capture an essence and a broadcast system that makes sure we hear the hits designed for us enough times for them to become ineradicable—all of that is pretty new. It’s really the story of how consumer society segmented to bring many sectors of the populace into the mix, first in the U.S. and now around the world. I’d never present that story as an absolute musical triumph, but I do think we can learn to appreciate its many folds and wrinkles.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Chicago Social Practice History Series

Edited by Mary Jane Jacob and Kate Zeller

Immersive Life Practices
Edited by Daniel Tucker
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago / The University of Chicago Press ($20)

Support Networks
Edited by Abigail Satinsky
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago / The University of Chicago Press ($20)

by Jay Besemer

Going Deep: Chicago-Style Social Practice

1. Some Context

How are people free to work experimentally—and prevented from working—with culture tools? How have various artists and community members created resistant and alternative models for both artistic and life practices, often blurring and blending the distinction between the two? How do these people, groups, and practices relate to traditional infrastructures for art and culture-making, especially regarding access to support systems, space, funding, and sustained income opportunities? Finally, what might the answers to these questions tell us about our own sense of possibility for meaningful life, whether or not we call ourselves artists? These questions and more are posed by the branch of cultural production known as “social practice.” They are deeply important for residents of today’s Earth as we grapple, individually and collectively, with our varied and intensely problematic conditions of life.

immersivelifepracticesIn late 2014, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) launched an ambitious and intense series of social practice-related programming. Much of it centered around an exhibition entitled A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action. On view in SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries between September and December of 2014, this show and its surrounding series, A Lived Practice, led to the publication of four 225-page anthologies documenting some of the various social practice efforts and approaches throughout Chicago history. Two of the four volumes are especially compelling to readers interested in the aforementioned questions. These books, Immersive Life Practices (edited by Daniel Tucker) and Support Networks (edited by Abigail Satinsky), explore the relationship of Chicago-centered artists to the global social practice community.

The term “social practice” has many definitions, but in general it can be described as artistically informed experimentation, demanding deep and long-term research of places, systems, and relationships. An investigative element is often present, as is a collaborative and non-hierarchical mindset and methodology. One fairly well known example of a long-term social practice project—albeit not Chicago-based—is Mel Chin’s ongoing “Revival Field.” This project has some elements in common with efforts made by Chicago artist Dan Peterman, founder of the Experimental Station. In an interview toward the end of Immersive Life Practices, Peterman provides a useful functional description of his own artistic experimentation:

It’s a kind of a continual assessment of materials and processes that in various ways track meaning or value. In a sculptural or artistic sense, this is not just about transforming things with an aesthetic toolkit into art, but recognizing all these dynamic relationships. So it is very time-based. Meaning it is constantly changing because there are various economies at play.

Because social practice orientation tends toward engagement with problems rather than outcome-focused single solutions of problems, it is well suited to deep and thorough play with complex, often ongoing issues for which a finite “solution” tends to mean erasure or marginalization of minority concerns. On the other hand, projects in social practice can demand a slow-developing and indeterminate trajectory, making them ill-suited to many artistic funding models, market-based valuation, and pathways to arts-related institutional oversight or affiliation. In short, the discipline spotlights the failures of the traditional support systems of arts practice, and enables (even demands) an enlightened pragmatism of working alternatives to existing paradigms and methods of support. These characteristics of social practice, in general, provide the scaffolding of our discussion here.

2. A Chicago School: Roots and Shoots of Social Practice

The Lived Practice series was rooted in the ideas and actions of John Dewey and Jane Addams, both of whom were important figures of Chicago history. The community-service cultural ethos modeled (and pioneered) by Jane Addams’s Hull-House was especially vital. Combining social and educational services for immigrants with an art gallery, performance space, and other art-positive supports, Hull-House offered a rich experiential alternative to exclusionary social systems and art venues. The Dil Pickle Club, an early 20th-century class-scrambling venue located in Chicago’s Towertown neighborhood, is another relevant alternative-arts prototype.

Abigail Satinsky introduces Support Networks with the explicit connection between past and present, exhorting readers to

draw connections with the Dil Pickle Club or Jane Addams’s Hull-House as historical progenitors, as relevant to social practice artists as museums, galleries, and artist-run spaces, and start interrogating the actual conditions of building community within a range of political contexts and social histories.

supportnetworksIn many ways the connection is quite clear; Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects shares a lot in common with the ethos and function of Hull-House, serving both as a residence and as an archive/cultural venue, located in an African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side that is itself rich with history. Mess Hall, formerly located at the other pole of the city in the far-north Rogers Park neighborhood (and now defunct), echoed some of the Dil Pickle ethos. This collective-run space offered educational and artistic programs driven by a gift economy of mutual aid rather than monetary focus; no exchange of cash could take place in the space. The axes formed by these four examples across time and the city’s geography help to plot out some key social practice coordinates: analysis of economies; the role of class, race, and gender in access to resources; people-centered alternatives to dominant ideologies/methodologies; and the setting/function of making and experiencing art.

Social practice, then, involves a great deal of person-focused social engagement and collaborative problem-solving taken on by artists and non-artists alike within specific communities, and this work can incorporate tools of cultural production even if it does not result in a traditional art product. Chicago artist Nance Klehm combines many disciplines in an immersive life practice that extends to many diverse groups and settings. Locally she offers workshops in urban foraging, teaching people how to identify and prepare wild foods found in feral city-spaces. Motivated by commitment to various overlapping ecologies, including the social, Klehm has worked on agriculture-based projects with Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission and a project for an autonomous-living system with the Center for Land Use Interpretation on its Utah site. What are the nuances of working in differing capacities and contexts? Klehm elaborates:

I had to loosen my expectations with the Pacific Garden Mission because I was working with homeless people and evangelicals. It was really intense but also easier in some ways because I knew what I was up against since it was always pressing in on me—homeless people, evangelicals, and millions of worms doing their thing . . . whereas [Center for Land Use Interpretation’s] Clean Livin’ is so wide open, where things need to work, but actually don’t. It doesn’t need to have true functionality because it is art; when I work as a tech or as a consultant functionality is expected.

Klehm presents an interesting contrast here, one that invites further questions. Within a social service-oriented social practice—when art happens under the primary aegis of supplying social solutions—specific outcomes are demanded. Their absence equals high-stakes failure. Yet in more open-ended contexts, where the art occurs in the name of socially or ecologically informed cultural experiment, “failure” is not tied to deliverable results. It is a hazier word, and may in fact not be applicable to a truly experimental project.

3. Making Making Happen: Community of/with Artists

When social practice projects are open-ended, long-term, and not driven by specific outcomes, how are they funded and where does the “art” happen? Who makes the art? Who determines its success and/or value? Many of the groups and individuals contributing to Support Networks have engaged these questions in pragmatic and innovative ways. In “Alternative Arts Funding in Chicago,” Bryce Dwyer discusses an array of funding systems created “by people whose view from the ground substituted sophisticated knowledge about their communities’ needs for the deep pockets and infrastructure of conventional funding organizations.” Some of the funding models (Sunday Soup, Peace Party, Community Grant Night at Maria’s Bar) fall under the loose catchword of “crowdsourcing,” while others (Chances Dances, Fire This Time Fund) adapt organizational and operating methods from more traditional granting agencies.

What’s different about all of these is their tendency to erase the social division between grantee and grantor. Another commonality is the commitment to fairness in awarding based on need and on the value of the project. Sometimes funds are generated and passed from artist to artist, not unlike the early 20th century “rent parties” thrown by jazz and blues musicians for themselves and each other. However, funding models like Peace Party, Chances Dances, and the Community Grant Night are potentially limited by their bar-and-club-dependent cash stream. Such systems cut out many potential supporters who, for demographic or other reasons, are unable to contribute to this type of funding despite desire to do so. Alternative arts funding is obviously deeply imbricated with alternative arts spaces, especially because some of the spaces hosting funding parties also host art events.

Access to space for all phases of art projects (including performance and exhibition) is as vital as access to funding. And again, artists themselves have folded the solution to problems of workspace access into their working practices. While perhaps not exactly a form of social practice on its own, the self-provision of workspace and funding is vital for the majority of social-practice artists who have not reached a level of status that makes them attractive to traditional funding sources. Artist-run spaces have always nourished Chicago’s cultural landscape and its cultural producers throughout history, from the South Side Community Art Center to Randolph Gallery to Mess Hall, up through today’s Dorchester Projects, Experimental Station, and Sector 2337.

Often the spaces in which projects happen are not art spaces at all; sometimes access to space comes through partnership with social service providers like Pacific Garden Mission. Other times, the nature of the project itself precludes the use of art-oriented spaces entirely. If urban space itself is the center of the project, then the whole city is the work. Between 2001 and 2004, a collective known as Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR) used tactical media approaches like altered signage, bogus property development, community organizing, and guerilla street performance to highlight and critique gentrification and the lack of public space in Chicago.

4. Conclusion as Threshold: Is This Art? Are We Art?

One interesting fact emerges from intensive reading of Immersive Life Practices and Support Networks: not all those who operate in a social practice milieu are graduates of art schools. Yet a growing number of art schools offer concentrations or course offerings in social practice. Does this mean that traditional art markets and venues are becoming able to metabolize social practice projects, or does it mean that the discipline itself is contributing to ongoing art-world transformations? Probably both things are true, though it’s unclear how social practice projects might function in strictly market terms. In considering such notions we are invited to ask why art really gets made. We may also ask why most people who set out making art (MFA students in particular) are prevented from doing so beyond the art school context by the overwhelming burden of debt, job scarcity, and other social pressures. Additionally, we are compelled to question the appropriateness of the still deeply-entrenched idea of an artist as a single individual who makes highly valued objects meant to be consumed and traded within a rarefied group of privileged people. However we define our relationship to art, social practice discovers meaningful alternatives to the dominant notions of what is possible in life.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Picasso’s Tears

Poems 1978 - 2013
Wong May
Octopus Books ($24)

by Daniel Moysaenko

Picasso’s Tears is Wong May’s fourth collection, and her first since 1978. A singular voice shapes this work: from Mozart to 9/11, May carries a global, inherited past. Her poems examine the present while striding forward, and how she regards each concern seems measured—neither sentimental nor didactic. She considers public events, not through apothegmatic solution, but through a lyric estrangement that involves both detachment and empathy. May exemplifies John Stuart Mill’s definition of the poet as one who speaks to herself (even in her apostrophes). To write to oneself necessitates standing apart, and to write a poem about political injustice necessitates communing with private moments and sagas. But the individual does not stand in as an allegory here; it becomes a landscape in which the reader can situate the grander phenomena, whether horrific or beautiful.

“Sleeping with Tomatoes” documents the suffocation of fifty-eight Chinese émigrés in a van carrying produce. “I don’t pretend it’s either human / &/or common,” the speaker says of the tragedy. “These shall inherit your kitchen, / . . . Trust them / Trust us / in time to taste of nothing again.” These lines make nothingness palpable by focusing on what slips into it. As the kitchen does not inherit the tomato, nothingness does not envelop us—we sample it. This poetry is a lens that concentrates light, not in a way that is deifying or accusatory, but clarifying. Granted, expecting to accurately portray reality is dubious, but May seems aware of the inescapability of individual voice and, therefore, of transmutative perspective.

In “The Difficulty of Moonlight in Boca Raton,” the speaker meets absent family members in an eerie setting and addresses them in cascading lines: “My late, / lost brothers, / The swamp is what it takes.” The ardor and drama of alliteration crumple into the last clause’s seeming plainness, but that clause swings. Depending on one’s emphasis, its meaning could be idiomatic: it takes the swamp to bring us back together. Or, the meaning could be definitional: the swamp is composed of the material it takes. The clause acts as a lodestar. Primordial biodiversity—with connotations of danger, disease, and contagious lassitude—is made lovely by its cohesion. This fact spills into the collage-like nature of the swamp, which exists because of articles it collects.

Such accumulation constitutes many of May’s concerns: history, brutality, and humanity build on preceding or appropriated points. May’s even voice avoids coloring the swamp as parasitic, but the lines “My late, / lost brothers” introduce an elegiac tone. Despite reunion, the brothers are still late and lost; this literal and personal quagmire does not relinquish. At the very least, reunion requires a gathering entity that draws bodies into itself rather than into nothingness. Would it be fair to see Picasso’s Tears as a swamp, as it corrals artifacts and events to make its own? Without constituent parts blended together, the work would be monotonous. Instead, it succeeds in pleasing and shocking without lulling the reader into numbness.

This collecting impulse also figures in “The Making of Guernica.” Though not the title poem or even the best in the collection, this sixty-eight-page piece is the book’s vortex. It weaves through essayistic, referential, and reiterative comparison, while incorporating May’s gentle obliqueness. After pointing out a lamp-bearing woman, harlequin hat, and a lightbulb in Picasso’s Guernica, the poem shifts toward the Boston Marathon bombing: “The deadly hat of the bombila / In April 2013, / It is the shade the bomb wears.” These images surface in waves, and May employs both associative organization as well as prosaic development. Expository lines, excisable from others poems, act as punctuation or eddies in a swirling mass of pathos. Her voice is both informational and poetic as those lines quoted above continue with a devolution of directness: “No/But/Yes / But / —Wearing that face?”

Picasso’s Tears offers detail and magnitude, punchy lines and soulful endurance. It manages this range by skipping from register to register and subject to subject, readjusting its focus and pace. May stretches past her immediate concern to involve subjects it touches, each step presenting a surprise, complication, and figuration. She trusts language to spool in fruitful exploration and alternates between grand and unadorned; she drifts toward the nostalgic or monstrous, confident in her risks. Picasso’s Tears has a strange richness that seems accrued over a protracted lifetime or fomented during one afternoon. Despite its historical references, it is outside time—a work of deftness and ease.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Because the Night

becausethenightStacy Hardy
Pocko Editions ($16)

by Noy Holland

Stacy Hardy’s first collection of stories, Because the Night, is part book, part art object, an uncanny collaboration between the author and Italian photographer Mario Pischedda. Pischedda’s electrifying images serve as cover, end page, and visual contact between each story. An image precedes the title page of each story and behaves as augury for what comes next; the same image acts as a vapor trail, a sizzling remnant of the story just concluded. Thus, each photographic image illuminates the synapse between stories and does a great deal to augment the unity of the stories’ effect. The images can be soothing, though more often, fractals come to mind; cosmic fissures; lines on tarmac; lighted buttresses, blurred as if in motion; a streak of lightning; a lone headlight rending the saturated dark of the veld in which these stories are set. The images give you a feeling of place without figure or detail; they are stark, unnerving, watery, moving. They let you know you’ve arrived just a moment too late.

Arriving a moment too late is a recurrent theme among these twenty-one stories of race, power, and sexuality in contemporary South Africa. Hardy is a wizard in her evocations of absence—the vacancies between people in proximity; the longing for those we cannot reach; the estranging paralysis of witnessing the horrific. Because the Night is replete with darkly fluid narratives about people on the move—a couple on a killing spree; hitchhikers caught on the Transkei at dusk; a woman searching for her missing brother.

“You learn to live in the cracks, on the perimeter, with the need,” Hardy writes in “Conjoined.” In this story, among the longer pieces in the collection, the narrator’s search for her brother endures over the “stunned blur” of years; her search is sustained on scraps of hearsay, vague sightings, government files, “burned or stored away. Hidden.” You get used to the hunt, the sister confesses, “Adapt to it. It gives a certain rhythm to your days, fills your dreams. It’s when it ends that you’re thrown off kilter. Then the animal is suddenly real, nervous and exhausted. No longer an idea being hounded, but a dead thing living.”

A sense of abruption or stasis is prevalent among many of these stories. We see the hunter exhausted, post-road, pressed onto her back in bed, though the mind continues in its wild orbit. A woman whose breast has been amputated imagines a field of breasts planted in the ground, “A vast plain of overripe areolae sitting squat, their decapitated heads bursting under the sun.” In “A Zulu and a Zebra,” a woman in bed with her lover searches for shapes—for revelations—in the ceiling: “I squinted hard until I saw Jesus. He was ascending. I told him I hated my boyfriend. My chest went tight, my hands icy. I hadn’t realised it until I said it. Jesus couldn’t hear me. He floated benevolent on the ceiling.”

Hardy’s characters are often bound in concrete ways to the troubled landscape of contemporary South Africa, but the fantastic finds its place here, too. A prison guard required to do a body check enacts a disturbing reverse birth, entering bodily into the body of a prisoner, which breaks open into pure white. In “Squirrelling,” a woman grows adventurous while masturbating, moving from objects which remind her of her departed lover to a “tractable, rubbery” toothbrush which sprouts bristles and transforms into a squirrel: “She wanted it to squirrel inside her, to nest in her womb so she could birth an army of baby squirrels.” Soon we find her “feeding the palpitating mass into the vestibule”; she is stuffing herself, crowding out grief and desire, waiting for “the colony to panic.”

Whether flown into the fantastic or bound to the literal, Hardy’s writing issues from visceral experience, from the fusion of a playful intellect and a keen sensitivity to the coded messages the physical body sends. Appetite, she seems to say, saves us—our fascination with the possibilities of language, and with our mutable, physical selves. Violence, love, sensation, release, our confounding, insatiable needs keep us alive, make life possible.

Sex, and the power relations which inhere in sex, are central to this collection. Sex as catharsis, as blind need, as another drug among the buffet of drugs so easily found in the shadows. The drug might be dagga or a litany of suicides; Coke, Smoke, or Charlie; crystal straws or tjoef, chalk; grief or the stupor of heat. In stories like “Vanishing Point,” even landscape functions as a drug, transforming physical experience: “The heat dries her out. She is light, leather, bone, cartilage. Her wrists are wisps. The Karoo sky is endless. The reddish light of the sunset, the brown field. Occasional houses, mostly shacks, a few bodies walking through the void with bundles on their heads.”

The veld itself—vast and inhospitable—dwarfs any character moving through it, gives her nowhere and everywhere to run. Place and person, cosmos and body, can scarcely be distinguished; things coalesce and disappear and the moment of recognition is fleeting. Listen to the description of “My Nigerian Drug Dealer” in the sun on the soccer field. “I watch the sweat pour off him like an oil streak. The whites of his eyes look like shooting stars. I go home at half-time, before he sees me. That night I dream of Lagos. Streets thronging with dark shapes. In my dream it’s the end of the world. The sky is burning up and all the people are dancing.”

One can read a long way into the literature of any continent and find little which speaks so powerfully and with such candor about the life of body, the quickness of the mind to depart, as Because the Night. We cannot hope to escape, these miraculous stories insist, but let us shake the grates, feel what there is to feel, find each other, and live.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

The Night Sky: Soul and Cosmos

thenightskyRichard Grossinger
North Atlantic Books ($29.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Back in the 1960s Richard Grossinger began editing and publishing the rather idiosyncratic literary journal IO. In its pages creative work appears alongside the scholarly and esoteric, reveling in a lively mixture of poetry and art with ecology and psychology, embedding matters of science within realms of spirituality. In the ’70s Grossinger’s own books began to appear with popular small presses such as Black Sparrow, and in 1974 he established North Atlantic Books, whose stated mission is "to affect planetary consciousness, nurture spiritual and ecological disciplines, disseminate ancient wisdom, and put forth ways to transmute cultural dissonance and violence into service." No North Atlantic title attempts to fulfill this mission as completely as Grossinger's newly updated and expanded edition of The Night Sky: Soul and Cosmos.

This ambitious, massive tome culls together three texts spanning decades, all focused on merging the science and history of astronomy with the cosmically attuned insights of astrology. Grossinger refuses to respect conventional boundaries between disciplines. He mixes diverse, even contradictory ideas and theories, liberally borrowing from wherever. His aim is nothing less than the presentation of a galactic and visionary path towards expanding human consciousness, acknowledging that "every creature is a matrix, formed by information as it gives off information: a cosmos thinking and breathing itself." Dismayed by how "we throw around cosmoses these days like so much Broadway stardust, digital apps, free-market capital," Grossinger urges that when you look up "what you see is what you have been and are becoming" and that "the unspoken reason we honor the starry night: it looks like us."

The Night Sky reawakens readers to the astonishment of earlier times, when the lack of electrical light did not allow for the eclipsing of night's starry drama. Back then, the intimacy of the connection between our lives and the enduring light surrounded by so much darkness above was felt as immediate and unquestionably relevant. Grossinger turns our gaze upward, however, to focus it inward:

The darkness of the night is our own darkness. Without darkness within, there would be no darkness without. . . . That is what we meditate on during zazen, what we reach out to in lonely prayer . . . There is only one darkness in the universe and only one source of light, only one night sky, and it is not out there.

Demonstrating the relationship between the stars and ourselves, Grossinger lays out the details of our own solar system. Every planet is profiled from both the astronomical as well as astrological angle, drawing on a wide range of writers to enhance his descriptions. For instance, on Neptune he turns to Gloucester poet-seer Gerrit Lansing:

"Normal perception is a jail," writes the poet Gerrit Lansing, "from which [Neptune] wishes to break out." He adds that the Neptunian dissolves to create. He is attracted to "the watery powers of the underworld," the "criminal, the forbidden, the untasted, always seeking to unveil, though not through the rational mind."

Grossinger knows those readers dedicated to "the rational mind" will likely be flummoxed by his freely citing creative and imaginative authors alongside those scientifically recognized, yet he’s unapologetically dedicated to getting his point across:

I will say this now categorically: scientists in general and astrophysicists in particular get trapped in a blatant external, inertial sky with its necessarily catastrophic Big Bang because they interpret the evidence, as well they should, on the basis of moleculo-atomic forensics and statistical testimony alone. However, it is possible to honor all that and still leave room for reality's self-arising ground luminosity: the superpositionally entangled, scalar basis of any system of emanation; the inviolable phenomenology generating a cyclone of gyres with an outer celestial husk; its shifting axis of verifiability over the aeons, from (as it were) star to shining star.

Scientific laws alone won’t do. Intuitive reasoning is called for. Popular demand for such explorative contemplation is readily apparent: "people pursue their daily horoscope (or get their futures told by soothsayers) because at some level they trust the intelligence of no-intelligence more than they do highly regarded intellectual theories of academic authorities."

Grossinger’s propositions admittedly stretch the limits of reason, especially when he retains traces of objectivity while insisting on a rather speculative argument:

I can accept that the crop circles are probably pranks . . . without ceding my larger belief that transpersonal and/or nonhuman intelligences are trying to contact us on unmonitored channels. . . . I can actually waver between paradigm-shifting anomalies and flagrant cons without feeling dilettantish because crop circles have become full-fledged hyperobjects that embody their own contradictions.

Despite the occasional somewhat hackneyed proposition, Grossinger's writing is well informed and his intent admirable. For a project so expansive in terms of scope and ambition, failure is rather impossible—with its bevy of citations, this is a book that simply goes on forever, and Grossinger likely already has notes for yet another "updated and expanded" edition.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

She Weeps Each Time You’re Born

sheweepsQuan Barry
Pantheon ($24.95)

by Benjamin Hankey

With four books of poetry, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, some coveted prizes, and a professorship at the University of Wisconsin—Madison decorating her byline, Quan Barry comes to her debut in prose with impressive credentials. The question is, will Barry's novel be held in the same esteem as her celebrated poetry? The bar, after all, is set very high.

The pivotal character in She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is Rabbit, a Vietnamese psychic and medium who is more goddess than human. Like the bodhisattva Quan Yin in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, Rabbit exists to listen to the cries of souls as they travel through samsara, to hear the "voices of the spectral." She has been "chosen to speak for all of them, tens of hundreds of thousands of millions."

The story of Rabbit’s birth evokes myth as much as magic realism. It's 1972 and American soldiers are bombing the mountains near her grandmother's farm; sick with malaria, Rabbit's teenaged mother dies in childbirth and, as bats and ash fill the sky, her grandmother hides her in a makeshift grave. Now refugees, they flee towards three decades of displacement during which Rabbit will be privy to many sorrowful tales, including those of a woman indentured to a French rubber plantation, a rape victim, murder victims, and victims of war crimes—their stories all dispersed across a 100-year swathe of Vietnamese history. As her country rages in civil war, settles, and attempts to bandage its battle wounds, Rabbit listens.

Like her poetic forebear Sylvia Plath, Barry's forté is realistic, intensely emotional imagery. Her scenes favor the illicit and the messy, with her most shocking passages detailing sickness, miscarriage, teenage sex, abortion, and rape. Of course, such gut- and heart-wrenching vignettes are riveting. But the novel disappoints when such intense imagery is too often reproduced, especially in sluggish stretches of minimal action. For instance, Rabbit is nursed throughout the novel, even at age thirty; there is neither an apparent reason for the adult breastfeeding, nor the lactation of her surrogate mother. Yet more than one section concludes with Rabbit sucking out breast milk, even passing it into her caretaker's mouth. Well-written though they are, such scenes undermine Barry's well-conceived plot and risk letting the novel devolve into a catalog of moments that owe too much to shock value.

Despite this, fans of Quan Barry will surely recognize the poet at her best in this novel. The repeated images of graves, honey, the moon, and dying bodies emitting blue flame, for example, are all carried over from her first poetry book Asylum, as are Barry's abiding interests in Vietnam, motherhood, and violence. She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is ultimately a moving book that rewrites the genre of the war novel into something rich and strange.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Continuous Performance: The Selected Poems of Maggie Jaffe

continuousperformanceEdited by Christopher Butters, Marilyn Zuckerman, and Robert Edwards
Red Dragonfly Press ($17)

by Julia Stein

Maggie Jaffe’s poetry is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s, but with a distinctive, tough-edged American voice. After getting a B.A. from the New School for Social Research in New York, Jaffe lived in Guatemala, where she was inspired by Latin American poets such as Claribel Alegría, Otto René Castillo, Ernesto Cardenal, Pablo Neruda, and Roque Dalton—poets who were spokespeople for the wretched of the earth. When she died in 2011, she had published six books of poetry, received an NEA fellowship, and had won the San Diego Book Award for Poetry twice.

This new volume of selected poems is an excellent introduction to her work. One of the poems from the opening section celebrates Cardenal’s lines “the earth belongs to everyone, / not just the rich!” by voicing them at an anti-immigrant rally on the border. Another poem looks at Salvadoran misery, but also celebrates Alegría’s hope for change in El Salvador “in pueblo-owned milpas after / sweet green corn ripens.” Jaffe wasn’t a poet for the squeamish: in one piece, a minor Salvadoran union official finds the death squad has “decapitate[d] / her five children” and placed their bodies “around the kitchen table.” The poem ends with the phrase “Shit happens.” In “Emily Dickinson,” Jaffe criticizes the nineteenth-century poet, calling her “one of the few women / you can trust to keep / her mouth shut.”

In selections from How the West Was Won, Jaffe begins with “Can’t Happen Here”—referring to the “Gen·o·cide” that did happen here, to Native Americans. The theme of resistance runs through these poems—for example, she lauds the Zapatistas as people who will “die fighting rather than from dysentery.” The poet also finds a heroine in Emma Goldman, saying that after the U.S. deported Goldman for “‘hysterically’ agitating for peace,” only “in death will they allow / her back in the Imperium.” These voices contrast with that of Jaffe’s student in “Poverty Sucks,” who feels that he has “the right / not to know about the poor.”

Jaffe’s third book, The Prisons, compassionately describes prisoners and their visitors such as “Marianne” with her “3 advanced degrees”: “She’s also doing time: / one-room Portland / flat, post office by day, / clichéd lonely nights.” The poet creates another fine portrait in “Daniel in the House of Cards” who wants to make it up to his parents who visit him every weekend, but the con next to him says that when Daniel gets out his parents will “be holding hands six- / feet under.” The Prisons has the finest poems written in the U.S. about our penal system; in this book, Jaffe also identifies with “degenerate” artists such as George Grosz, calling him “a small no in the big / YES! of Nazi Germany.”

As her career progressed, Jaffe continued to create haunting portraits such as “Kafka at Work,” capturing the author’s short, sad life in six poignant stanzas, and “Otto Dix: Artist Against War,” describing his powerful antiwar drawings created while he was a soldier in the German trenches. Jaffe wrote many poems about those artists called “degenerate” by the Nazis, such as Dix, Grosz, and Kandinsky—“‘degenerate’ because they won’t paint / golden bodies for the Reich.” Jaffe also both loved and hated the movies, as evidenced by her many poems about Hollywood; these include “Sign of the Times,” about failed starlet Peg Entwistle, who jumped from the thirteenth letter in the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, and who “still haunts the scene of her demise . . . when there’s a strong scent of gardenia in the air.” In another film-themed poem, “Letter to the Actor Charles Laughton Concerning the Life of Galileo,” German refugee Brecht writes admiringly to Laughton “as if words would save us.”

The hard-assed honesty, courage, and hope in these poems make Jaffe equal to Brecht and her other “degenerate” heroes. Like them, she refused to make safe art during troubled times; her uncompromisingly tough style bores unflinchingly into our piercing reality.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015

Summer 2015


Sleep is More Than Mystery: An Interview with Ralph Adamo
Interviewed by Paul Dean
New Orleans poet Ralph Adamo discusses his new book, Ever, and his connections with Lost Roads press and Frank Stanford, and the mysteries of place and time.

Poptimism vs. Rockism: An Interview with Eric Weisbard
Interviewed by Dylan Hicks
Music critic Eric Weisbard discusses his inventively researched and subtly argued new book, which looks at postwar popular music through the formats radio programmers and record companies developed to present it.

Feeding on The Sea-God’s Herb: An Interview with John Domini
Interviewed by Linda Lappin
Join the conversation about John Domini’s new collection of essays, which celebrates and defines post-modernism in the novel from a fiction writer’s point of view.


A Night Made of Many Many Roses
A review-essay of Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated and with essays by David Need; Illustrated by Clare Johnson
Essay by Sumita Chakraborty
What started out as a routine review takes a turn for the personal as Chakraborty reads the poems of Rilke in the light of her younger sister’s death. Read this riveting review-essay as a PDF here.


Rachel Cusk
In Cusk’s neatly structured novel, a nearly anonymous female narrator converses with a series of loquacious interlocutors, mostly male strangers during a trip to Athens, Greece. Reviewed By Sally Franson

My Documents
Alejandro Zambra
My Documents collects an array of meditations on writing and wayward memories of growing up in Chile. Reviewed by Jeff Alford

Joseph Harms
Baal reworks the familiar story of two youths on the cusp of adolescence who discover that while Satanic evil is real, human evil is even worse. Reviewed by Jane Franklin

The Turner House
Angela Flournoy
Flournoy’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing saga that spans more than a half-century in the lives of an African American family in Detroit. Reviewed by by Rob Kirby

Against the Country
Ben Metcalf
Metcalf recounts a family’s journey to Goochland County, VA, an idealized pastoral land that harbors a dark side. Reviewed by Garin Cycholl

Halle Butler
Butler’s debut novel taps into a frightening display of dysfunction and assholery. Reviewed by Courtney Becks

Because the Night
Stacy Hardy
Hardy’s first collection of stories is part book, part art object, an uncanny collaboration between the author and Italian photographer Mario Pischedda. Reviewed by Noy Holland

She Weeps Each Time You’re Born
Quan Barry
Poet Quan Barry turns to prose to relate the mythic tale of Rabbit, a Vietnamese psychic. Reviewed by Benjamin Hankey


What About This: Collected Poems Of Frank Stanford
Frank Stanford
Thirty-seven years after his death, the long-awaited Collected gathers not only all of Frank Stanford's published poetry, but unpublished poems, prose, and more. Reviewed by John Bradley

Caroline Bergvall
Bergvall’s compelling Drift explores how the poetic process has an impact on cultural excavation. Reviewed by Greg Bem

Holy Heathen Rhapsody
Pattiann Rogers
In Rogers’s latest in over a dozen collections of poetry, her voice is at once enchantingly sophisticated while maintaining a tenderfoot, almost toddler-like, lens. Reviewed by Kimberly Burwick

Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo-Mobo (Future)
Lionel G. Fogarty
While the indigenous Australian writer can be seen as writing with a double consciousness, this new work demands a new analysis. Reviewed by Robert Wood

Antisocial Patience
David Brazil
Brazil offers a a series of meditations on the dilemma of works and grace, praxis and chance, for the “defeated” but righteous crusader-cum-activist. Reviewed by Tyrone Williams

The Ghost In Us Was Multiplying
Brent Armendinger
Armendinger uses all the vexations of language to access the inaccessible. Reviewed by J.G. McClure

Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths
Susan Paddon
Paddon’s new collection creates what T. S. Eliot would call a “new whole” out of her reading of Anton Chekhov and the experience of her mother’s last months of life. Reviewed by Joseph Ballan

Soldier On
Gale Marie Thompson
In her first full-length collection, Thompson language is just stubborn enough to cohere, just disjointed enough to take on the characteristics of a delicate but indelible lace. Reviewed by Jenny E. Drai

Picasso’s Tears
Wong May
This long-awaited fourth collection of poems reveals a deft examination of events, from Mozart to 9/11. Reviewed by Daniel Moysaenko

Continuous Performance: The Selected Poems of Maggie Jaffe
Edited by Christopher Butters, Marilyn Zuckerman, and Robert Edwards
A new selection of Maggie Jaffe’s poetry displays her distinctive, tough-edged voice—a poet not for the squeamish. Reviewed By Julia Stein


Roberto Calasso
Calasso draws upon The Vedas to reveal an intricate network of complicated rituals, mythological characters, and metaphysical enigmas—all of which are merely different means of describing how the mind and the cosmos interrelate. Reviewed by John Toren

Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording
David Grubbs
Grubbs takes a long look at changes in how music has been conceived, written, performed, and recorded in light of the passage of time and development of new technologies related to the listening experience. Reviewed by Will Wlizlo

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
Michael Booth
Booth performs a journalistic tightrope walk between his grudging admiration of the Nordic countries and delight in debunking their virtues. Reviewed by Poul Houe

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Bryan Stevenson
Just Mercy is a compelling narrative on the themes of economic and racial bias, illustrated with stories of people who live on the margins of the U.S. legal system. Reviewed By George Longenecker

Girl in a Band
Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon’s memoir picks up where Patti Smith’s Just Kids ends, with the next generation of artists who were inspired by the addictive energy of New York City. Reviewed by Christopher Luna

The Night Sky: Soul and Cosmos
Richard Grossinger
This ambitious, massive tome culls together three texts spanning decades, all focused on merging the science and history of astronomy with the cosmically attuned insights of astrology. Reviewed by Patrick James Dunagan

Chicago Social Practice History Series
Edited by Mary Jane Jacob and Kate Zeller
Two books, Immersive Life Practices and Support Networks, explore the relationship of Chicago-centered artists to the global social practice community. Reviewed by Jay Besemer

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2015 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2015