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JUDITH MARGOLIS and CECIL GISCOMBE

Thursday, February 24, 2022
3 pm Central Time
Crowdcast

In Train Music: Writing/Pictures, a poet C.S. Giscombe and visual artist Judith Margolis take a train across the United States, creating and conversing along the way. This “tour de force of diasporic poetics” (Adeena Karasik) offers a cross-genre combination of text and image that paints a moving portrait of a country wracked by racial and gendered conflicts, of a long-time friendship that sustains, and of “the survival of two artists selected by two histories for extermination” (Tyrone Williams). Join us as the possessors of these insightful voices bring words and pictures to this exclusive virtual event!

Free to attend, registration required. We hope to “see” you there!


About the Participants


Artist Judith Margolis explores tensions between social consciousness, feminism, and religious traditions. She is the author of Life Support: Invitation to Prayer and Countdown to Perfection-Meditationson the Sefirot, and her book art is included in the collections of the New York Public Library, Yale University, University of Washington, UCLA, and the Jaffe Book Arts Center. Margolis was born and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, USA and now lives in Jerusalem, Israel. She does collage because bringing together unrelated images to form something new is how humans dream.



C. S. Giscombe’s poetry books include Prairie Style, Giscome Road, and Here; his book of linked essays (concerning Canada, race, and family) is Into and Out of Dislocation. His recognitions include the 2010 Stephen Henderson Award, an American Book Award (for Prairie Style) and the Carl Sandburg Prize (for Giscome Road). Ohio Railroads (a poem in essay form) was published in 2014 and Border Towns (essays on poetry, color, nature, television, etc.) appeared in 2016. An avid long-distance cyclist, he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

BEN OKRI

Tuesday, February 22, 2022
3:00 pm Central Time
Crowdcast

Ben Okri, Booker Prize winning author, returns to the publishing world with two new publications for audiences across the spectrum of age and interest from Other Press. In a new imaginative environmental fable, Every Leaf A Hallelujah, Okri spins a wonder-filled adventure story, echoing climate activist Greta Thunberg’s message that “no one is too small to make a difference,” while Astonishing the Gods, originally released in 1995, is a genre-bending, imaginative novel (now including a new introduction penned by Okri) making a timely return — in 2019 the book was selected as one of the BBC’s "100 novels that shaped our world." Don’t miss this special event with one of the foremost African writers of our time!

Free to attend, registration required. We hope to “see” you there!


About the Author

photo by Mat Bray

Ben Okri is a fiction writer, poet, and playwright. He has published many books, including The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991. His other works include eleven novels, four books of short fiction, two collections of essays, and three volumes of poems. His works have been translated into 27 languages and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; his books have won numerous prizes including the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Africa, the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, and the Chianti Ruffino-Antico Fattore International Literary Prize. The recipient of many honorary doctorates, he is a vice-president of the English chapter of International PEN and was presented the Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum for his outstanding contribution to the Arts and to cross-cultural understanding. Other recent books include the novel The Freedom Artist, the short story collection Prayer for the Living, and the poetry collection A Fire In My Head. Born in Nigeria, Okri lives in London.

Carnival Lights

Chris Stark
Modern History Press ($25.95)

by Shannon Gibney

An impressive work about family, survival, and what one character calls the “spiral” of all stories, Chris Stark’s Carnival Lights is part novel, part Minnesota history, part spiritual tome, and part brutal account of white racial and sexual violence. Centering on several generations of one Ojibwe family in both the northern and southern parts of the state and spanning the years 1860 to 1969, the book deftly shows how whites used land theft, intimidation, and sheer force to try to exterminate and remove Native communities, but also how the victims resisted and fought to keep their ways of life.

Stark sets her main plot in 1969, as two teenage cousins, Sher and Kris, flee their home on the reservation to escape toxic family dynamics and rape, landing in Minneapolis. “The girls arrived in the city with $12 and two empty stomachs, their grandfather’s World War II pack, two stainless steel cups, some face makeup, gum, and a lighter.” The young Ojibwe women navigate the treacherous city streets as best they can, but it feels as if they are being hunted by sexual predators at every turn. Sher and Kris are seen as not people, but objects to be plundered, used up, and then cast aside. At the same time, in Virginia, Minnesota, their Aunt Em has been kidnapped by men who are selling her “upstream,” to Thunder Bay or Toronto. She manages to escape, and then embarks on an equally harrowing journey to find her nieces.

Even through so much devastation and loss, Carnival Lights asserts that the land—and everything living on it—remembers. At one point Sher recalls finding her father frozen to death in a field:

The trees, their outstretched arms and fingers cradling delicate lines of snow, heard and saw all of it, and it became part of them, recorded in their beings, in their flesh. Ring after ring, year after year, the Standing People recorded the story of the land. They absorbed, held, witnessed. The Standing People. The libraries of the earth. The collectors of knowledge, their limbs arching over the land, over life. Holding. Bending. Protecting.

The Standing People bearing witness to horrible acts of violence against the Ojibwe is one of the central themes in the book, and it provides a sense of accountability, if not consequence, for the ongoing and pernicious attacks.

Another potent theme in Carnival Lights is that history lives on in the present, passed down from generation to generation. What lingers by the river where white men drowned a young, Ojibwe man in 1891 haunts a woman walking there decades later. In 1969, a young Jewish boy in Minneapolis remembers being raped by a Catholic priest in an orphanage after World War II—an experience that happened to his father, not him. This is all drawn together succinctly when a woman contemplates her grandchild’s propensity toward movement: “Her grandma turned to watch her eldest grandchild run into the woods. She lit a cigarette and asked the mishoomis—the trees—to help the young girl with the burden of the past that she carried, passed down through blood.”

Even in the midst of endless catastrophe, Carnival Lights offers readers a window into Ojibwe cosmology, values, and ways of being. While this is not the same as justice, it presents readers with other ways of being and seeing the world, which is healing in itself. This is not an easy story, of Ojibwe women who were targeted, violated, and even killed, but it feels like a true and necessary one. And it is also a story of some who lived and of the lost histories they told. As Sher’s grandmother says:

“Women are strong. Aren’t we, my girl?” She cupped Sher’s round face, pressing dirt into her cheeks and chin. “You, in particular. My grandmother told me stories about old-time Indian women warriors, fighting alongside the men. Sometimes fighting the men, eh?” She laughed. “The Christians didn’t like those stories to be told. They want their women to be obedient.” She swiped dirt on the girl’s nose. “That is you. The heart of a warrior.” Her hands turned to the earth. “Remember, my girl. No matter what, not all is lost. Nothing is ever gone for good.”


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Focal Point

Jenny Qi
Steel Toe Books ($16)

by Jessica Johnson

The title of Jenny Qi’s Focal Point refers to a term in the lexicon of optics, the “point at which parallel waves converge and from which diverge.” Picture (with your phone or your mind) the diagram: straight lines traveling from a (convex) lens on the left edge of the page toward a single place where they meet and begin traveling toward the right edge, growing further and further apart. In this collection, the “point” is Qi’s mother’s death from cancer, seen from the position of the daughter who then becomes a cancer researcher.

The helplessness of grief is the crux where meaning comes into focus. At the end of the title poem which opens the book, Qi names what her mother can’t see, but what she can: mice, some of whom Qi the scientist injects with cancer and “harsh” medicine, and some of whom she shields to prevent them from “watch[ing] their sisters die.” She writes:

I see my mother in those graying eyes,
eyes I refused to donate because how would she see,

and I think how cruelly futile all this
erratically focused empathy, how brutal

to learn why I couldn’t save
what I couldn’t save.

In hindsight, memories from before the death are travelling inevitably toward eventual illness and loss. All that comes after—thoughts, sensations, problems—can be located in relation to the experience of the same loss.

Throughout Focal Point, images and stories from Qi’s job, relationships, travels, memories, and dreams converge and diverge. The possibility of being in a condition other than alone sharpens, then blurs; the question of solitude is especially poignant in poems like “Biology Lesson 1”:

Cells need touch—
isolated cells wither,
float away
in a blood-red sea.

This is the first in a series of short, numbered poems that renders the plain facts of cell biology in a manner that is straightforward, but telling. These poems crystallize the way Focal Point relies on image in service of story. Throughout the book, each experiential cross-section is illuminated by the story as a whole, and each, in turn, builds the story further. The relationship between the parts and the whole of Focal Point is one of its main pleasures, and the interplay of these inevitably makes one think about the implications of the focal point metaphor. We begin to consider the terror contained on the right side of the focal point diagram: the idea of infinite divergence.

As Qi attends to the everyday experience of estrangement—even, at times, from poetry itself—her tone is often matter-of-fact, like the distance of a microscope’s ocular lens from the thing looked at. But the gaze in Focal Point has a way of turning toward the quick, the heartwood, the place that is alive and tender. Qi tends to leave the image alone, letting it be final and, in the context of the poem and the collection, full. This trust in the image to carry sometimes painful implications is the book’s sharp edge, placed against the skin of memory. It reminds us that in microscopy, the focal point is not only the point at which waves converge and diverge—it’s the place where the image is created, the place where we can see.


Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Reminded by the Instruments: David Tudor's Music

You Nakai
Oxford University Press ($74)

by Patrick James Dunagan

While the piano and the organ may superficially appear similar (both do employ a keyboard), this is a misperception. The piano is a fundamentally percussion-based instrument, whereas in terms of sound functionality, the organ aligns with the family of wind instruments. There are no hammers hitting wires in an organ as in a piano, so while having a distinctive sound, an organ may be easily altered to mimic sounds of other instruments. This is perhaps the most basic of the discoveries offered in You Nakai’s Reminded by the Instruments: David Tudor’s Music, yet understanding the differences and similarities between instruments is the foundation of Nakai’s impressive overview and of the many more tantalizing discoveries to be had.

Reminded by the Instruments is not a biography per se, but rather an elaborately detailed consideration of Tudor’s music as a biography-of-sorts. This aim is pursued with full diligence by way of examining the many instruments (primarily electronic) Tudor utilized to achieve his works. Nakai emphasizes that one key instrument Tudor relied heavily upon from the start, and learned much from, was himself:

Born in Philadelphia on January 20, 1926, he was usually remembered as an extraordinary pianist who was instrumental to the music of many Americans and European composers in the 1950s, influential to many more. It was often said that his virtuosity—as a pianist as well as a thinker—had inspired composers around him in New York to experiment with how they wrote their scores, which led to the development of so-called graphic notation—a form of musical score which requires the performer to be involved in the process of creating the performance score.

Composers such as John Cage, who wrote works for Tudor in the 1950s, “later portrayed Tudor as a black box whose internal mechanisms were unknown, but nonetheless always output extraordinary results from any input material.” As Cage recalled: “One assumed he could do everything. (In fact, hearing him perform was proof.)”

Tudor’s music, with its striking contrasts of bumbled-sounding knocks and bangs against whispery snaps and sizzles, might strike many an ear as nearly comical, yet his intent was ever-serious. Nakai delves into the occult roots of Tudor’s music, demonstrating a debt to the spiritualist Rudolf Steiner who “took great pains to coordinate the metaphysical nature of music with the physical mechanism of the human body,” in part by combining the “great significance in the fact that the inner ear is placed in a fluid” with the fact that “when one breathes out, the fluid in the brain descends to the diaphragm area through the spinal column, and when one breathes in, the same fluid is pushed back to the brain.” This “formed the basis of Steiner’s view of the human body as a musical instrument.”

Not surprisingly, as a result, “when composers began to regard him as a musical instrument, Tudor was delighted.” This reminded him of “the theory of the respiratory mechanism he had read in Antonin Artaud’s writing, which was also reminiscent of Steiner’s teachings.” Artaud’s idea, known as “Affective Athleticism” was “precisely what Tudor was looking for: the art of creating temporal continuity, which instead of being grounded in the psyche of the performer, composed the psyche as an effect of bodily action.” He soon found that “unlike the difference between the worlds of organ and piano, the difference between the instrument and the instrumentalist appeared to blur.” His approach to instruments grew out of his own sense of himself as instrument. As Nakai notes, Tudor “expanded the act of composition through his particular approach to the performance of music. The title of ‘composer’ did not indicate any accomplishment but lack of a better word.” His desire was to have the instrument compose itself. “With electronic instruments, Tudor had found a way to produce materials himself that would nonetheless behave as an ‘other’: he could quite literally let the instruments take the lead.”

Nakai acknowledges early on that writing about Tudor felt like “a giant puzzle,” since “a life inevitably takes on the appearance of a puzzle for anyone who tries to read it.” And while he allows that “a book that tries to show the way around a labyrinth ends up creating its own labyrinth,” he also asserts “if there is one thing absolutely certain about this book, it is that it could not have existed if David Tudor did not deliberately leave an incredible amount of materials and take great pains to preserve as much detail of what he did as he could—without telling other people about it.” The validity of this statement is borne out by the numerous sketches of scores and arrangements included, all of which came from Nakai’s extensive dives into the several archival holdings of Tudor’s work around the country.

Besides written work, Tudor also preserved the many electronic instruments he purchased and/or built (the majority of which Nakai includes photographs of). While Tudor rarely left a totally clear indication of exactly what he did in every performance, or even precisely which instrument(s) he applied and how, Nakai’s relentless pursuit allows him to reconstruct much, if not all, of what Tudor was up to on such occasions. This required an impressive amount of backward-looking detective work, with Nakai drawing upon every clue possible, from receipts to audience/observer commentaries along with Tudor’s itineraries and his own (usually quizzically misleading) recorded responses to queries.

Nakai’s title comes from these lines of Walt Whitman’s “A Song of Occupations”: “All music is what awakens from you when you are reminded by the instruments, / It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the beating drums, nor the score of the baritone singer singing his sweet romanza, nor that of the men’s chorus, nor that of the women’s chorus, / it is nearer and farther than they.” This is clearly a nod to music’s abiding mystery and power over one’s consciousness. Reminded by the Instruments leaves little doubt of the utter sublimation Tudor achieved through his instrument.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

The Essential Muriel Rukeyser: Poems

Muriel Rukeyeser
Selected by Natasha Trethewey
Ecco ($16.99)

By Warren Woessner

In selecting 75 poems from Muriel Rukeyser’s prodigious body of work, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey took on a daunting task. Rukeyser was born in 1913 and died in 1980, one year after her collected poems was published. She was an active journalist for left wing organizations and throughout her life she was artistically (if not personally) witness to five wars and decades of feminist, environmental, and racial progress and injustice.

Trethewey anchors her selections for this new and timely volume with Rukeyser’s longer poems. “The Book Of The Dead,” about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, may be the best known of these and occupies 45 pages. This poem tells the story of an attempt to widen a hydroelectric tunnel after pure silica had been discovered, the exposure to which led to the rapid deaths of hundreds of workers, many of whom were Black or recent immigrants. Many were buried in mass graves. The sections are each individual poems that record “Statements” by the miners and their family members, as well as Congressional testimony. They read like found poems:

George Robinson  :   I knew a man
who died at four in the morning in the camp.
At seven his wife took clothes to dress her dead
husband, and at the undertaker’s
they told her the husband was already buried.

The poem does not mention the Tunnel Disaster directly, but is more of a call to continue to battle the forces of injustice everywhere: “What three things can never be done? / Forget.     Keep silent.     Stand alone.” Another long poem, “Letter to the Front,” pertains to the Spanish Civil War, which began while Rukeyser was in Barcelona, but contains stanzas that could have been written today:

But our freedom lives
To fight the war the world must win.
The fevers of confusion’s touch
Leap to confusion in the land.
We shall grow and fight again.
The sickness of our divided state
Calls to the anger and the great
Imaginative gifts of man.

Rukeyser can walk that talk. She was arrested early in her journalistic career while covering the trial of the Scottsboro Boys and again later during a protest against the Vietnam War. The poem “The Gates” describes incidents in the 1970’s when she traveled to South Korea to plead for the release of the poet Kim Che Ha, who had been sentenced to death for criticizing the current regime. The collection includes further poems about her anti-war activities, as well as about her sexuality.

The one drawback of this new volume is that Trethewey’s introduction is too short. A reader new to Rukeyser’s work would certainly want to know more about her life, especially since she did not tread the well-worn path of academic advancement. The central message of her work, however, is summed up in her short poem “In Our Time”:

In our period, they say there is free speech.
They say there is no penalty for poets,
There is no penalty for writing poems.
They say this.      This is the penalty.

In under 200 pages, The Essential Muriel Rukeyser lives up to its name, presenting the positive force of her mission concisely. In this it mirrors much of the poet’s own brilliant work, as captured in the opening lines of “Wherever”: “Wherever / we walk / we will make // Wherever we protest / we will go planting.”


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

The Last Twist of the Knife

João Almino
Translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Lowe
Dalkey Archive Press ($14.95)

by Douglas Messerli

In this 2017 novel, translated by Elizabeth Lowe into English as The Last Twist of the Knife, Brazilian writer João Almino establishes a series of difficult hurdles for himself, almost as if purposely creating nearly impossible, Oulipo-like challenges. The form of the work is a journal kept by a 70-some-year-old narrator whose memory is slowly slipping away and who suddenly decides to leave his wife Clarice and—despite the warnings of writers such as Thomas Wolfe—attempt to “go home” again, to the Brazilian backlands of the northwestern plateau where he grew up.

Our hero, who perceives himself as a kind of agèd Don Juan, imagines that he still might fit back into a community where he and his family were always perceived as outsiders. He purchases his old family homestead near the isolated town of Fortaleza through his childhood girlfriend Patrícia, the daughter of the formerly wealthy landowner of the region and the man who is also, somewhat inexplicably, our narrator’s “godfather.” How he might imagine the two could reignite his one-sided childhood passion after all these years of absence is never explained. Even on the airplane on his way back to this world, our “hero” flirts with the passenger seated next to him and religiously takes her number as if she might be an attainable conquest. We realize almost immediately that our narrator has lost all sense of himself in time and space.

In many respects it is appropriate that the narrator is returning home, for, as Almino reveals, the character himself is regressing to the mental capabilities of a child. Although he recalls some incidents in full, most of his narrative is abstractly presented, the story consisting of names and vague events. Moreover, in his fragmented journal entries he often forgets what he has previously written and gives highly contradictory accounts, leaving the reader with a strong sense of skepticism and even distrust. He is the very definition of an unreliable narrator.

As these scattered entries over a brief period build up, the reader begins to perceive truths which the narrator has not yet unraveled, taking even some of the energy away from what would otherwise be a kind of slow detective tale. The narrative, accordingly, is filled with repetitions, gaps of information, clues that are rather obvious to us but seemingly incomprehensible to the narrator, and very little of the rich detail that so enlivened the great South American fictions of the 1960s and ’70s. A typical passage reads like this one from May 22:

Arnaldo lives on a little ranch very close to the one I bought; I can’t remember if I already mentioned this. It’s been years since I last saw him, but now we frequently communicate on WhatsApp. I still think of him as my childhood friend, a better companion than Miguel, Clarice’s brother, because he used to go everywhere with me, and I was always ready to tag along when he did his farm chores or when he went hunting for tiús and preás.

In short, on the surface the narrative actually says little since the narrator cannot make sense of his own experiences; yet given the clues he strews throughout his confused memories, we learn a very great deal. We ourselves are accordingly required to fill in the details with a far richer narrative that the fictional author himself might be able to provide. By the time our not-so-very-bright storyteller finally understands that the past “does not substitute for the present, the inherent difficulties of the unknown or the uncertain promises of the future,” the poor hero has no present and very little future left.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

small gestures of control:
an interview with bart plantenga

by Sparrow

Born on the edge of Amsterdam, bart plantenga has lived in many places, including New York City and Paris. Though he has been writing lists since the age of nine he began writing other creative work in high school, and he has since published novels, poetry, short stories, essays (hotheaded and otherwise), and the definitive nonfiction works on yodeling (Yodel-ay-ee-oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge, 2003) and Yodel in Hi-Fi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)). Also an innovative radio disc jockey, plantenga has produced the weekly program Wreck This Mess since forever on stations in New York (WFMU), Paris, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and currently on Mixcloud. He eventually moved back to Amsterdam in 1996, where he lives with his partner and daughter to this very day. His newest book is List Full: List Poems of Necessary Orderliness (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, $18).


 

Sparrow: Are the rules of list poems different than the rules of ordinary poetry?

bart plantenga: Yes, as different as the rules for admittance to an S&M club and those for Harvard Law School. The list does something a poem rarely does, unless you’re a practicing Surrealist: it allows chance and unconsciousness to rule rhythm while allowing the chore, grocery item, or reminder to determine the line break. There is NO preconceived narrative framework. If you discover a story in any of the lists, consider yourself a creative apophenic collaborator.

A poem hopes to mean, to move, to reach the heart, while a list can only mean in the same way a hammer or saw means something. The list can only arise from its “mere” utility by the employment of apophenia or placing it in a new context. The irony or hypocrisy or confusion is this: Lists are designed as small gestures of control in a world resistant to comprehension. So, the seemingly feckless list usually regiments—until it’s placed in contentious contrast with the lofty poem, where it can with its audacious leaps of logic and faith make a shambles of the prescriptions contained in the standard Poetry User’s Manual.

Sparrow: Did you worry that a book of personal lists was too narcissistic?

bart plantenga: We’re all busy with ourselves. If we can step out of our constrictive, perhaps attractive, costumes we might realize that, although unique, we’re a lot like other people, too. The lists in List Full display the mechanics and strategies we all apply to messy lives in need of structure and reason. In some ways, List Full may build a warmer campfire to gather around than, say, a non-list-based book of poems. Lists are universal, but they were never intended to display any locutionary prowess. They’re inhibitionist, not exhibitionist, not spawned from ego—although their curation may reveal an ounce of conceit.

S: While writing were you thinking of Frank O’Hara, who’s always dropping the names of his friends in his poems?

bp: No, but I do like Frank and read him more often than other poets. It’s interesting that you noticed familiar names in some of my lists. I didn’t notice this aspect until I’d actually selected the lists and placed them in the layout. But the lists do, now that I look at them, create a certain O’Hara-like titillation—like gossip as high lit. Celebs in lists are like stars in the sky, and lists telescope that haughty distance between names, shrinking the universe. O’Hara, by the way, managed to write both modestly and majestically, being both humble and swaggering—a state of literary grace in my mind.

I’ve had discussions about O’Hara with Jose Padua. But I’d forgotten some of the reasons why I liked his poems so much:

  1. his lists delight in a clanking clash of disparate objects strung out joyously;
  2. he delights in creating disarray through a miscellany;
  3. while trying to make sense of something ordinary;
  4. plus he displayed an almost Dadaist/childlike giddiness in vocalizing a list of things in, for instance, the poem “Today”: “kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas . . . pearls, harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins”;
  5. this kind of list perks the ears to fresh amalgams of objects never before presented side by side.

This is what lists can do: surrealistically and unconsciously juxtapose disparate words and objects that insist on new links, new syntactical molecules, creating fresh sound/poetic possibilities for the poem that is beyond meaning, beyond itself—a kind of Dada without the outrageous costumes. William Logan listed the poetic crimes of O’Hara’s poems as: “their giddiness in the face of despair, their animal pleasure in gossip, their false bravado, their frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies.” That’s about right.

S: Do you think the pieces in List Full are actual poems, or anti-poems?

bp: Neither and both. They were not created with any high purpose of changing the world or a contrarian purpose of bending poets out of shape. Lists hold words that can re-establish some sanity in an insane world. And yet, in their function of bringing order, making sure our thoughts and deeds get parked between the white lines, they also misbehave enough to upset an applecart and so, they are now framed as “what if we were to see them as poems,” something that may annoy some poets, but amuse others. Eventually their purpose evolved as texts to toss up against the inflated claims made by some poets about the paradigm-rocking power of the—or their—words.

Anyway, that’s how I came to describe them as unselfconscious, working-class poems of humility and utility. If I’d defined them beforehand as something high-minded like poems written to change the world and then began writing these lists with the shadow of that flapping hifalutin banner overhead, the result would have been a book full of hypocritical imposters and annoying wannabes, like rock ‘n’ roll poseurs trying to do jazz.

I see it this way: band A struggles for years to write a perfect pop hit and never manages to do so, while, in another garage, band B simply lets the juices flow and just like that, a miracle, they’ve produced an international hit. “The Piña Colada Song,” for instance, was recorded in one take and the Beastie Boys’s “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party!” was written in five minutes. This kind of miracle will seem unfair to all those artists who spend ages tweaking their sound, remixing, rehearsing, using a rhyming dictionary to get the lyrics right and then failing to ever crack the top 100. Maybe the list is to the poem what the Beastie Boys are to Yes or ELP.

This makes great poetry all the greater, because it avoids the minefield of presumed pomposity, of poems being somehow inherently better equipped to confront a corrupt and hypocritical society than ordinary texts. Take Amanda Gorman’s poem—don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine piece of patriotic, inspirational verse, but the rip tide of expectation that ensued removes “The Hill We Climb” from all effective heart-to-heart communication as it assumes its rightful position as fetish item, as consumable good, as rousing stump speech.

So, the list is not so much an anti-poem as a Buddhist go-round to the “self is an illusion” notion where self-consciousness destroys the very feedbed of poetry—spontaneity which magically allows the out-there to communicate with the in-here. I don’t know where I got this Thomas Merton quote from, but I had it written down and can here illustrate how erudite I am: “We cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will . . . seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves.”

S: Do you have a favorite poem in the collection?

bp: Yes, a couple: while clearing out my mother-in-law’s attic upstate and prepping the house for sale I came across Nina’s “Summer Things To Do,” which lists all the things a young, carefree girl might like to do in the summer of her 12th year (“bike ride with lunch,” for example). And the long list “Paolo di Prima Packrat Treasure” details just some of the thousands of other bizarre items I found while clearing out that attic. A friend of my mother-in-law, a charlatan dandy, was moving from NYC to Switzerland and transported ALL of his earthly belongings up! Two hundred and fifty boxes of treasure and junk, which I, in my own way, unpacked and laid end to end in order to create a biography of this shifty man of many aliases. So those are two.

S: What would you tell a young person who wants to write a list poem?

bp: Don’t. Lists are not conducive to conscious application of poetic demands. Lists are humble and utilitarian. Innocent. Written to structure your week. The list is the backhoe of literature. Any presumption of a list to being greater than itself—let’s say it begins to believe itself to be a Lamborghini—will spell instant disaster for the list.

S: Were you thinking of Walt Whitman?

bp: After the fact, yes. So after the fact that I forgot to mention him in the intro. I know that all great bardic blowhards recited in long, unbroken sentences of list-like cadences, and that list-like quality certainly gives some of Whitman’s poems an incantatory power, more vivacity.

S: Do you like Whitman?

bp: Of course. Whitman used lists as a rhetorical/rhythmic device where something not especially important gains a new life in his incantational context. Maybe these lists of his were a shorthand way to capture many of humanity’s details in one poem—like rapid-fire images in a movie trailer, feeding into our optic insatiability and our capacity to absorb a story much more rapidly than previous generations. Whitman was essentially writing scripts for today’s videos with his quick flip through hundreds of images.

I remember working for the US Census Bureau in 1976, biking from door to door in Ann Arbor and the country surroundings. Being on a bike, I was faster than the others, and so I gained down time to pull out my Leaves of Grass. I remember how magical it was at a young age to be reading it in that environment (“Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows . . . give me serene moving animals”). Those were heavenly days of work, exploration, and poetic down time allowing me to witness Whitman’s words mingling with the scent of dry reeds, of fertile, wormy soil and the breezy sway of long-necked grasses.

S: Who’s your favorite poet?

bp: Well, I can never keep it to one: Brecht, O’Hara, Padua, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which is not poetry, per se, but reads like geographical poetry.The lyrics of the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and also Captain Beefheart. Ed Sanders’s Whitmanesque books. There’s Rimbaud’s Illuminations, Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, and Breton’s Nadja, all three of which intravenously informed my Paris Scratch (Sensitive Skin Books, 2016). Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Serge Gainsbourg’s lyrics, Karen Garthe’s The Haunt Road. Her work is excruciatingly, elegantly difficult, starkly and playfully obtuse and, in some ways, reminds me of Thelonious Monk’s piano playing.

S: Have you always made lists?

bp: Well, not “ALWAYS,” as in since I was born. But, yes, I began at an early age as a nerdy immigrant who wanted, ironically, to be SO American that I began making long lists of everything in which the US excelled such as—I don’t know—tire manufacturing, corn production, sitcoms, Olympic medal counts, nuclear warheads, tallest buildings—proving that my parents had indeed chosen the world’s best country. That’s what I thought until Vietnam, the race riots, and the generation gap shook things up for me and I became radicalized, anyway.

S: Speaking of being radicalized, do you worry that your books aren't political enough? I constantly do (about myself, I mean).

bp: Yeah, that’s a tough call. There’s already plenty of political books that are navel-gazing, wellness prescriptive, so correctly and uprightly constructed so that there is no dirt or doubt clinging to them. Or they’re written by committee and formally approved, so come out like filtered water rather than spring water. There are also the outright declamatory, hamfist in the air poems, declaring revolution in rhyme with a bit of googled reading as context. I hope there is a middle ground—words with a bit of class consciousness revealed without shoving the obvious prescription in your face—showing not shouting—poems that can still frolic in the sheer joy of sound or can be radical or antithetical to current trendy trendiness in their mere construction—so somewhere between Brecht, Dada, Di Prima, Run the Jewels, Gil Scott-Heron, and the Fugs. I hope List Full, in its working-class-ness, can out the poems we see in so many journals as bourgeois decorative devices, as distractions and diversions. That’s not to say I don’t read a lot of beautiful conventional poems! I want the revolution the Situationists dreamed of, one guided by the imagination, not a political party or a movement run top-down by heroes or spokesfolks. Being, not buying. Something like that.

S: What sort of order are the items in? They don’t seem to be in chronological or alphabetical order. Is it all a matter of euphony?

bp: The items in any one list are not orchestrated to create meaning. They serve an internal need to order my part of that world. In the book, the lists themselves are not ordered or curated. The originals had no awareness that they would ever be part of an ulterior purpose. The lists within the book are only mildly arranged so that some of the more personal ones referring to my youth or identity appear near the beginning. But I did not set out to create a biographical, timeline-ish meta-narrative. It is similar to my books Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor (Sensitive Skin Books, 2017): they’re supposed to gain spark through jarring juxtapositions and surprising encounters, ignoring any composed linear time passage.

S: What is it about last meals of murderers on death row that fascinates you?

bp: The ridiculousness of the gesture. To quote from my own intro: “it is about the self-aggrandizing humanizing of the executioners & prison officials.” I have often imagined this final symbolic interaction between those going on with their lives and those about to die, a small ceremonial kindness at the juncture of where it meets extreme cruelty—a cruelty that most nations have eliminated from their repertoires of punishments. But it also offers the prisoner one last chance to present a final artwork, an installation comprised of a constellation of food choices.

S: What do you want for your last meal? (Personally, I think I would ask for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.)

bp: It would depend on the level of the prison guards’ bastardliness. If they were cruel, I’d eat something that would give me diarrhea, so that after they pull the switch and after my last twitch, I would leave behind a smelly mess. If I am innocent and some of the guards were sympathetic during my stay, I’d order some snack foods like nuts or M&Ms or croutons and spell out a message on my tray claiming my innocence and offering the name and number of an investigative journalist. Or I’d draw a smiley face in Skittles for them.

S: Do you know if these condemned men actually ate all this food they ordered?

bp: In fact, a number did not—they ordered absurdly elaborate meals and then ignored the meal as a “screw you,” to piss off the guards and prison officials one last time. White supremacist Lawrence Brewer placed an incredible order: “2 chicken fried steaks with gravy & onion, a bacon + triple cheeseburger, cheese omelet with beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers & jalapeños, pint of ice cream & peanut butter fudge + crushed peanuts + 3 root beers,” which he then proceeded to reject. He had been sentenced to die for his part in the gruesome Texas murder of James Byrd. Brewer and his mates picked up Byrd and drove him to a wooded area where they beat him up, spray-painted his face black, chained him to the bumper of their pickup truck and then dragged him for some 3 miles, effectively lynching and mutilating him beyond recognition. Brewer’s untouched meal was discarded, prompting Texas officials to terminate the last meal tradition.

S: Do you ever have the urge to make a more abstract list, like a list of all the times you doubted the existence of God, or a list of every time in your life you’ve gotten lost?

bp: I DO. And sometimes when I am hopelessly lost I go through a few of my tower of journals from years gone by and discover lists of some speculation or trepidation that seem so alien to me I cannot imagine having written them. But there they are in my journal, in my own handwriting.

S: Are the “Journals to Subscribe To” real?

bp: No, they—The Proceedings of the Retired Circus Dwarfs Federation, Papercut Survivors of Wilmington, Delaware Bimonthly—were composed with my friend Brad Lay in a riffing moment of temporary unhingedness with no intent to include it in List Full, which, at the time, did not yet exist. But this kind of exercise of trying to out-absurd our absurd reality usually comes back to haunt. Originally, we think we’re pretty clever—humorous even—only to discover there ARE titles like this in the new world of hyper-minuscule niche marketing. The conundrum: the more absurd our concoctions, the more likely we are to discover they already exist and that there are acolyte-members living by their credos.

S: Most lists we make are entirely rational: things we want to do, foods we want to buy. Taken out of context, they become quite strange—especially since we tend to read texts before looking at the titles. Some of the ones in List Full don’t even have contexts. We never know exactly what they are.

bp: Yes, nice that you noticed this. This may be one of the key raison d’etres of List Full. The lists gain sustenance—I hope—by the broad leaps of faith, the wide gaps in meaning from line to line, which forces our brains to create meaning and that is exactly what we do. And so the poems are composed with the help of the suspension-of-disbelief reader. There was no meaning until ascribed by necessity. This is known as apophenia. Apophenia is fascinating: it’s the tendency to (mis)perceive connections and meanings between unrelated things. A kind of Rorschach test, maybe.

S: Are there any you wish you’d put in, that you left out?

bp: A scoop: I will be adding a new list to an update of List Full that’ll consist of a selection of all the odd Dutch names I’ve collected over the years. It all began with a Frenchman, Leopold Fucker, discovered in the Columbarium in Pere Lachaise when I lived there. The list doubled with my first Amsterdam job, painting the offices of a filmmaker named Ruud Monster. I’ve added some 200 since and will use about 50. A few others: Fake Krist (an NSB—Dutch fascist—officer during WWII), Henk Leegte (Emptiness), Harry Cock, Tiny Cox, Tiete van de Laars (Tits of the Boot), Jan Rotmensen (John Shitty People), Joke Butter, Constant Dullaart (a young artist)… See, here I go, the mere listing and reciting of these names brings me great oratory delight.

S: One big question with lists is whether to number the items. What’s your opinion on this? Most of yours are unnumbered.

bp: I like numbered lists because they express an extra level of ranking control—#1 should be performed first. In a situation where that control may have been difficult to secure, the number acts like an anchor. Numbering can also add an extra dramatic countdown element. Ultimately, the number, like the bullet point, is just another tool in the list’s toolbox.

S: Let us confess that we are both members of The Unbearables, a ragtag group of poets and shameless novelists who formerly met in dive bars of the East Village (of Manhattan) and are now spread throughout the world, you in Amsterdam, me in Phoenicia, New York, etc. Do The Unbearables influence your work?

bp: If inhabiting is influencing, then YES. I am a cannibal of the misremembered past, and so many of The Unbearables have appeared in thinly disguised or barely recognizable forms in my stories over the years. Many of the lists are also inhabited by their Pac-Man-like presence. Hint: The Unbearables tend to a kind of enlightened buffoonery and often renounce their own identities, taking on the forms of avatars in their own image. An index matching fictional to actual Unbearable characters is available for a steep price, although a discount is offered for those offering genuine-sounding praise.

S: Has anyone written a poetry book of lists before?

bp: There are a lot of list poems out there. In most cases, they seem quite unconscious and are deemed poetry after the fact. Those are probably the best. The documenters or “authors” tend to be fine with filing them in the category of “amusing things you can do with words.” There are several books out there too, but they seem to be mostly instructional and geared towards the notion that lists are a relaxed-fun way to get kids over their fear of words or poetry. So that’s revealing right there: lists as propaganda for the joy of words.


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The List As A Map To Someplace New

by bart plantenga

“How, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists.” -Umberto Eco

“I perceive value, I confer value, I create value . . . hence, my compulsion to make lists.” -Susan Sontag

Lists are not poems, especially when you begin calling them “poems.” Rather, the more unlike poems they seem to be, the more like poems they begin to act—even more than most poems themselves. In fact, the “poem” in its present guise is often comparable to Hollywood acting: the more self-aware and over-weened the performance is, the less likely you’ll believe the character. Lists are wonderful because they’re not hamstrung by poetic dogma and so possess a potentially more dynamic arrangement of words than many poems. If a poem is a lazy dish of meatloaf floating in thick gravy, then the list is a pan of popping popcorn about to lose its lid.

Most lists and their related articles are prescriptive, self-help, and, in recent years, often clickbait; as Maria Popova observes, it’s “today’s favorite attention-exploitation device in an information economy of countless listicles.” List evangelicals often advocate the list’s life-changing qualities. That’s fine; after all, the list has assumed the respectable chore of reestablishing order, indispensable for our cluttered world of hyper-exposed data—a helpful, therapeutic lifestyle management tool. Without lists we’d be as lost as a sea captain without a sextant.

So, what if ordinary personal-intimate-useful lists are allowed to wiggle, misbehave, and – like the singing short-order cook in the kitchen – emerge as unselfconscious, working-class poems of utility and humility? Think work song heard in a cotton field as opposed to chamber music performed in a drawing room. I decided to look at this utilitarian form anew for my latest book because:

  1. No one had ever done a book of lists as potential literature
  2. It was waiting to be compiled
  3. I’m a glutton for punishment [the work-reward ratio]
  4. I’m dyslexic and dyslexics must rely on lists to order what the mind cannot unaided
  5. I’m tired of most of the weather that hangs over poetry
  6. It’s a reaction to owners of a poetic license—I may have a driver’s license but that doesn’t make me a Formula 1 driver.

Lists were never conceived as poems, and thus can serve as critical interlopers, unbeholden to linguistic peer pressure, untethered from ulterior motive. Maybe they can even serve as poetic justice, as antidotes to self-serious poems that insist they can DO so much: change regimes, shift paradigms, illuminate the dusky, voice the unvoiced, rouse the masses, transform lives, foster teaching careers, etc., etc. Lists are contrarian in the same way punk originally confronted the over-weened emotionality of classic rock guitar solos.

Lists ignore the syntactical and ontological presets informed by The Chicago Manual of Style, thus freeing them from literature’s contrivances. This encourages disruptive leaps of logic, skewed word orders, sparking synoptical leaps between disparate words. Poetry is usually A to B, while lists perform staggering leaps and bounds from point C to point X, with no hint of explanation or apology.

For instance, in “Abridged List Pre-Move Busy 1996, NY-NL,” from List Full words found in close proximity include: “see Olympic torch spectacle - retirement village / hike, dead end dream in sun - rum & OJ / bad fish restaurant methodist church for photo op / retirees” and “walk lake owls swamp shishkebobs rockers church bells.”

These are not glossolalic upchucks; they match our contemporary sensory aptitude to glean meaning from rapid-fire music samples, movie trailers, and news montages. We process data faster than people did years ago. And we know that the rapid flip of static images at 24 per second fools the mind into experiencing a moving image (the phi phenomenon). Just as still images become film, so do seemingly unredeemably unrelated words, discomfitingly placed side by side, find poetic purpose. This can be seen in the line: “carpet samples, candy, x-rays, deli take-out.” Lists thus assume a freedom beyond free verse to gain vigor and sustenance, to create bold, almost Dadaistic poems of liberating absurdity.

When our minds couple the phi phenom with an upbeat version of the affliction known as apophenia, which psychologist Klaus Conrad described as “the unmotivated seeing of connections,” we enter an alchemical process, a collaboration between listener and reader, where words are elevated beyond their mere utility as reminders.

Shorn of all presumptuous ballast, the list can now perform poetry’s essential task: shooting to the clear heart of matters. Lists become maps to previously undetected diary entries. They can be as illuminating as the blue glow of luminol at a crime scene. The end result, the harvest of all this grammatical tumult, can be surprisingly anomalous: lists, secure in their concision, stoically uncover a mantra-like calm, a stilling of the mind, while unearthing snapshot mini-memoirs. Just as a documentary can portray the dignity of a working-class person without claiming the worker is some kind of royalty, List Full attempts to spotlight the neglected list as something of essence without claiming it as precious poetry.

Lists are usually read in silence, are seldom recited, are not marveled at or nominated for awards, and are most often of temporary utility. They almost always find themselves balled up and tossed into a wastebin. But I implore you to give them a second look before you discard them.


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Smiling in an Old Photograph

by Kim Ki-taek

Translated from the Korean by Ed Bok Lee and Yang Eun Mi
40 pages, perfect bound

Rain Taxi’s OHM Editions is proud to publish a stunning chapbook of verse by a South Korean master poet.

"Fortunately, we have Kim Ki-taek’s supreme descriptive powers, his singular compression and piercing, surgical lucid dreaming, as a kind of optical eye chart by which we may eventually come to 'see' both past and future more deeply."
— from the Introduction by Ed Bok Lee

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PRAISE for SMILING IN AN OLD PHOTOGRAPH


"These unflinching poems witness the darkness under the eyelids, the eyes and senses gripped by hungers and South Korean capitalism’s harms. With surgical precision, Kim Ki-taek takes apart that moment of violence writing into a body and insists on the body’s power to write otherwise. These revelations, essential to us all, arrive for the first time in English thanks to Ed Bok Lee and Yang Eun Mi’s lucid translation. Their accomplishment is an invitation to one of South Korea’s most provocative 21st century poets."

—Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, author of Interrogation Room

"What joy to have one of my favorite Korean poets translated into English. Kim Ki-taek's masterful attention brings anxiety, sound, time, and breath into a singular focus. A newborn baby, a poet reflecting on his youth, or an old man walking: these short poems are wise explorations of loss, change, and joy. This is a timeless and universal voice to cherish."
—Lee Herrick, author of Scar and Flower

"The poet’s clairvoyant imagination attempts to observe in detail the subject in a way that is beyond the limits of normal, everyday perception. The poet ‘sees’ the magnetism of inner strength stretched thin and taut in the monotony of everyday life. Therefore, the world becomes a space where unseen, hidden powers contend for supremacy, and the dynamism of halted time is revealed. The power of Kim Ki-taek’s poems to move us lies not in the revelatory nature of enlightenment, but in the renewal of the awareness that digs up the hidden facets of existence."
—Lee Kwang-ho

Publication Date: January 2022