September 2009

From the Editor:

According to William Gass, in his essay “I’ve Got a Little List,” lists “suppress the verb and tend to constantly remind us of their subject;” a list “is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess.” Gass continues in this essay— as much a marvelously maddening collection of lists as it is a meditation on the proliferation of lists—to explore the list’s philosophy, its psychology, our “obsess[ion] with hierarchies in the form of lists,” about how “popular software programs known as “list servers,” which manage electronic mailing lists and document their distribution over the Internet…can make a mouthful of mush.” Lists are “juxtapositions, and exhibit many of the qualities of collage. The names which appear on them lack their normal syntactical companions. Most lists are terse, minimal, bald; they are reminders, commands, aspirations.” In short, it’s an essay that from start to finish simply asks you to take note.

“Listing is a fundamental literary strategy,” Gass observes. “It occurs constantly, and only occasionally draws attention to itself.” Immersed in their sad lyricism you might just miss the lists in Claire Donato’s Someone Else’s Body (reviewed by Gina Myers in this issue). For instance, in the poem “bed” there’s a “sheet of chrysanthemums in the basement / & the pocketknife, folded—                   the radiator, the empty corridor,” “Address to California” offers an evocative inventory: “Destroyed: The History of Autumn, Fishes and Corals, a  twelve-volume set of texts written by Christopher Morley.” After this section, Donato explains that she may be “inventing a history in which words are interchangeable and based solely on your neck and lips and shoulders.” Strangely, instead of reading “inventing” I’d mistakenly read “inventorying.” And in “regarding skin,” Donato compares a sleeping body to “tumbleweed,” a “braided match,” “wind-driven wood,” and “a circle the horse without a fence will follow.” Collapsed within this list is another where the land leaves dust for: “flour,” “taproot,” “& open, scattered seeds.” Somehow both Myers and I covered some of the same lines in this fine chapbook.

Gass writes of lists being “compendia of all kinds” like these: “dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, telephone and cookbooks, video and Mobil guides, indexes, nearby bed-and-breakfasts,” and to that you can add Pedro Ponce’s Superstitions of Apartment Life (reviewed this month by Greg Gerke). It’s a glossary of the sorts of things associated with apartments, expected words like “Balcony,” “Elevator,” and “Windowsill,” but also strange ones like “Equine,” “Solumancy,” and Xanthippe,” the definitions of which have been culled from “Original Sources” (a bibliography, another kind of list, is included) like some of my favorite books: Bachelard’s masterful “The Poetics of Space,” Borges’s daunting and amazing “Labyrinths,” and Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” as well as unfamiliar sources like Gordon Griffin’s “Compendium of Tenement Lore” and Philippa Waring’s “The Dictionary of Omen’s & Superstitions.” It’s a compilation that is at once a meditation on urban folklore as it is a refractive essay on claustrophobic and paranoid city living.

Seven sections of Matt Bell’s chapbook The Collectors (reviewed here by Adam Robison) are devoted to inventorying the stockpiles of Herman and Langley Collyer, the infamous eccentric hermit packrats. Bell uses the list as a device for cataloguing fear, despair, detachment, pride, loneliness, and as a kind of anthropological study. He writes: “I came in through the inventory of your home, through the listing of objects written down as if they meant something, as if they were clues to who you were.” We find one character here taking “inventory in his mind, counting piles of newspapers, broken furnishings, books molded to floorboards.” This is only a glimpse of the wild piles of stuff that these deeply disturbed brothers accumulated over the course of their lifetimes. Talk about baggage! Bell’s has created an indelible work that might just get you to throw some stuff away.

Speaking of OCD, the term also appears in one of the ever-proliferating and profligate lists of Nada Gordon’s Interests. One of my favorite lists here contains “pomegranate, toadstools, bottersnikes and gumbles…” And there are a number of funny entries like “super powerful female vocalists who are actually men,” “talking about where to go when the zombies come,” and “The fact that you can’t suck your elbow.” And strange ones like: “throwing pieces of horse hoof in the air.” I’m also happy to see that “madera” makes it on there too. Michael Leong’s review of Interests this month explores the list’s “pulsing simplicity of parataxis,” how lists like these “effusively unfurl,” and about the “frisson of accumulation” they bring about.

While the lists in Ken Sparling’s Isn’t This What You Were Looking For? (reviewed here by Tobias Carroll) are submerged, are suffused with sadness, they are no less insistent: “I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know how the boy & the girl met. I wanted to know what it was like to meet like that.” And later the protagonist sees

“nothing but a plate with crumbs. The scissors set askew. The hardcover book. The insides of the book torn free. The garbage pail on the floor beside the table.” The eye here flits and lists.

Notes on Conceptualism by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman (“reviewed” by Christopher Higgs) is broken up into three sections, the first and last of which are lists. It opens with numbered notes ruminating on notions of literary conceptualism. The book ends with an appendix: “[a] short list of book-length examples.” But even Place’s essay, “Ventouses,” sandwiched between the other sections, has its own smattering of lists including this first sentence: “A small iron chair on a small iron platform, the chair, and some surrounding air, encased in a cupping glass.” And later she writes exuberantly about how the “page is peppered with ink and slatted with white spaces, it can be potted with figural images, for or against the text, blotted with black holes, shouting down the sentences, or blasted with a blank null which might pass for silence.” Much of the essay’s foci begin with a question which is then answered in various lyrical list configurations.

The chapbooks reviewed this month just happened to be serendipitously connected in this way. And there are other connections as well but I won’t detail them here. Well, okay, for instance, they can all be read in multiple orders. For other connections, just dip into these reviews and discover them for yourself. And be sure to pick up any or all of these chapbooks. Each one is a strong effort and will captivate you with its rhythms, depth of feeling, and its probing, throbbing lines.

John Madera Interviews Ken Sparling

Madera: Isn’t This What You Were Looking For? is part of a larger work Book. Why did you choose to release this as a fragment? Are your forthcoming publications also excerpts from Book? Would you talk a bit about Book as a whole?

Sparling: Imagine there was just one thing you were trying to say, and you weren’t even sure what it was you were trying to say exactly, you just felt you had something to say, so you kept trying to say what it was you were trying to say and hoping that one time you would say it in a way that would allow you to finally see just exactly what it was you’d been trying to say. Imagine that sometimes you managed to say what you were trying to say better than other times, and you collected the best examples of what you were trying to say and put them together in a book hoping that, by saying it a bunch of times in a bunch of different ways, you’d maybe get closer to seeing what you’d been trying to say. If this were the case, and you took a number of examples of your attempts to say what you were trying to say and gave them to someone to publish in a chapbook, it wouldn’t feel like you were releasing a fragment, so much as providing an example.

Madera: What was it like working with J.A. Tyler and Mud Luscious Press?

Sparling: Tyler asked me if I would be willing to submit something. I looked at some stuff about him and his press that I could find online. I took at look at some of the pieces I was working on at the time, picked something that I was ready to share, and sent it off. Tyler accepted the piece. He didn’t ask to make any changes. That’s about all there was to it.

I’ve been receiving other MLP chapbooks in the series mine is part of, and they are all beautiful, so I’m thrilled that he allowed me to be a part of his project.

Madera: While this chapbook is certainly a refractive work where each page may be read as a standalone piece there are themes, words, phrases that seam it together. How did you envision this story? Were these separate pieces that you fused together? Or did one lead to the other?

Sparling: Every piece of any book I make stands alone as an example of an attempt to say what I’m trying to say, and every example is implicated into the whole by being another example of the same thing I keep trying to say. I think what connects the pieces in my books isn’t so much theme or words or phrases, as much as intention, my intention to continue to try to say what I haven’t quite yet been able to say. I think ideas like theme or plot or character or imagery are ways of talking about connection when you fear that the pieces in your book stem from, or rely on each other to exist, and that’s certainly probably the case with a lot of books, maybe most books. But the pieces that come together in my books don’t look to each other for validation, they look to something outside the book, which is the something I’m trying to say; what holds my books together is that the thing all the pieces look to is always me.

Madera: One passage in your chapbook seemed to speak to your aesthetic. You write:

“I was in the loop. I would say it was a loop. I began where I was standing, ran north, then curled back & ran parallel to myself till I came back to where I was standing. I would call that a loop. I would stay in the loop. This would make a limit for me. There was an entire world of limits available. Some not what I imagined, I knew, but still…”

There are a number of loops in your writing. Many passages resemble that snake that eats its own tail. How did this approach, this recursive, almost regurgitant style develop for you? And speaking of limits, I wonder if there are constraints that you give yourself while you write.

Sparling: I don’t intentionally give myself constraints, although I’m sure I constrain myself in ways I’m not aware of. Words are what limit me. Words point to something, but they themselves remain nothing – they emphasize their status as nothing in the very act of pointing. Words point away from themselves.

Words are the something a writer uses to cover the nothing he begins with.

Words are great because they always remain nothing, if you pay enough attention.

As a writer, my job is to try to trick words into turning back and pointing at themselves. When words turn back on themselves, they laugh. So words either point, or they laugh. I try to take the pedestrian pointing of words and turn it into laughter. Like water on rocks. I try to take the talk out of words and turn them into sounds. I wrench the meaning out of words and try to render them musical – in the way music is able to mean so much without ever meaning anything. So, at a very fundamental level, I’m definitely dealing in loops. I’m trying to get words to stop pointing at whatever it is they hope to reference, to get them to loop back on themselves, to make them laugh.

Madera: Who and what have influenced how you approach writing and then how it ends up looking on the page?

Sparling: When I was first under contract with Knopf to make a book, the idea was that I would do a book of stories. At one point, when was I struggling to put together enough stories – and wondering if I could get away with making a book where most of the stories were just a dozen sentences or less – I got scared thinking I had to try to sustain a longer narrative in at least some of my stories. I sent Lish some longer stories that I’d written specifically for the book. He wrote back: “You’re just spinning your wheels, Sparling.” And it was true. I knew it was true before I ever sent him the stories. I just wrote them and sent them without taking much time with them or paying much attention to what was in them, because I didn’t want to see what they were, that they totally weren’t working. I was pretty desperate, because I just didn’t think I could get away with a book where most of the stories were just a paragraph or two. I had a bunch of these very short stories that were all about Tutti, so I decided to put them all together into one longer piece. I did this, and it was maybe 60 or 70 pages, and then I sent it to Lish, packaged up with a bunch of my one paragraph stories, and I told him that this was going to be my book. Lish said: “Why just put the Tutti stories together? Put them all together and we’ll make it a novel.”

When I went to university for the second time, after completely failing out the first time, it didn’t take long for me to begin to think I was doomed again. I made it through the first year, barely, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to get through a second year. One of my first year profs said I should try taking a course with a guy named Alan Blum, so I did. Alan and a couple of other professors he worked with, saved me. Alan is a man of great intentions, for sure, and he seems always to be struggling to say something that he isn’t quite sure how to say. He seems to know what he wants to tell his students, and he seems ever delighted in his exploration of different ways of talking about what he’s trying to talk about. I was never all that sure what Alan was trying to tell us. It didn’t matter. His lectures were like magic. Or music.

Madera: What are some of your favorite books?


Stranger in a Strange Land

The Martian Chronicles

Catcher in the Rye

Catch 22

Death on the Installment Plan

A Bicycle Rider in Beverley Hills

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

the Boudica books by Manda Scott

The Man Who Loved Children (this one totally blew my mind when I read it, I don’t know if I’d call any book my number one favourite, but I’d say this one had the greatest impact on me at the time I read it, whether that was entirely because it’s such a great book, or because of where I was at in my life when I read it)

Madera: Your work has much in common with visual arts practice. I think of your writing here as being much like a collagist’s work. And the way you use elements like balance, repetition, and contrast makes me think of painters. Do you see those parallels? Who are some of your favorite visual artists? Have they influenced the way you create your images on the page?

Sparling: No, I don’t think any artwork or visual artists have had a real influence on my work. Any knowledge I have about art or artists comes only because my friend Derek McCormack sometimes tells me about artists he’s interested in. I learned about Joseph Cornell through Derek, and found his work compelling – but the best thing about Cornell for me was reading Utopia Parkway, which is a great biography, partly because it’s about such a compelling figure, and partly because it’s so well written. Derek also introduced me to the work of Henry Darger; but, again, the best part of Darger for me was this big huge book that came out around the time Derek told me about Darger. I got to take a look at the book at the Toronto Reference Library, where my office is. But I wound up buying it. Derek worked at Book City and there was a slightly damaged copy that he was able to discount a bit for me. That book is beautiful, just as an object.

I can see why you might see parallels between visual arts and my work; Cornell’s work is compartmentalized and seems to be trying to lift the mundane to another plane, which might be a description of what I’m doing. Around the time I read about Cornell, I was working on Hush up and listen stinky poo butt, ripping apart withdrawn library books and using their covers to house my book. I glued pictures my kids had made to the cover of each book. In my hunt for suitable withdrawn hardcover books, I came across a lot of withdrawn children’s picture books, and, for a while, I ripped images out of art books, or magazines, and glued them over the words in the children’s books, turning them into art objects of a sort.

Madera: I was talking to Eugene Lim and besides being a great writer (Fog & Car is one of the strongest debuts I’ve read in years) and publisher (Ellipsis Press), he is, like you, also a librarian. How does working in a library affect you as a writer? Does it inform your work at all?

Sparling: A bunch of stuff that happened at the first library I worked at, Fairview Library, wound up in Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall. When I stopped working at Fairview, I moved to the marketing and communications department of Toronto Public Library, so I haven’t done any real library work for around fifteen years. I’m not actually even a librarian. I was a clerical at Fairview and my jobs, at various times, included cleaning washrooms, restocking toilet paper, emptying the coin boxes on photocopiers, processing long lines of people wanting to check out books, and reshelving books. So I could have been working at McDonalds or a grocery store or any menial job. It did certainly have an affect me, not because I was working at a library, but rather, because it made me feel like I wasn’t really a writer, which is what I wanted so badly to be. It made me feel like a bit of a loser, and it made me pursue my writing in a sort of desperate way that wasn’t necessarily conducive to great writing. At least in the marketing department I’m doing a bit of writing, so I’m thinking about language and how it operates, even if the stuff I write for the library is pretty much crap.

Madera: I often write in the library. Over the years the libraries in New York City have changed from being quiet havens for writers, researchers, and students into little more than noisy community centers. What’s the atmosphere like there in Canada?

Sparling: Up here, from a marketing perspective, your experience of libraries is exactly what we want it to be – public libraries are no longer just for books and reading and studying, they’re public spaces and, as such, attempt to serve the needs of all the public, not just scholars, writers and researchers. We think of public libraries as the most democratic of institutions, equalizing access to knowledge and culture; democracy is messy, because people are messy. As soon as you make a space truly public, you’re going to get a mess of stuff happening there.

Madera: What’s the strangest thing that’s happened for you in the library?

Sparling: One time I came into work at Fairview in the morning, and my desk was gone. At the time, I was making a little publication called Not a Newsletter, which was typed on a typewriter that had no “e” and was a kind of photocopied collage full of pretty dumb, but sometimes funny stuff, that I distributed to all staff at Fairview. Sort of an irreverent staff newsletter. I wrote an article in NAN about coming to work and finding my desk gone. So this is when the strange thing happened: the manager called me into her office and said: “This workplace is not a democracy.” She went on to tell me that I was not to write anything like that article again, or I would have to stop making NAN. So, the greatest democratic institution in the world, the public library, does not really practice what it preaches, and that was a pretty strange realization for me.

Madera: What’s next for you?

Sparling: I’ll let you know after it happens.


The Collectors Final CoverThe Collectors

A Novella by Matt Bell
Released May 2009

5 3/8 w × 8 5/16 h × 64 pp
Sixty-pound acid-free off-white text stock
Perfect-bound ten-point glossy cover

$8.00 US with free domestic shipping

Collecting the Stories in The Collectors
By Adam Robison

The Collectors is a small story, a puny story, a little story, a big story, a huge story, a big, big story, a narrow story, a dank cave. Matt Bell wrote it. It was published by Caketrain. Brian Evenson picked it as a runner-up for their contest. It’s 64-pages long, but spatially it spirals upon itself and throbs back out because of the peculiar way Bell structured it, and also because of the ordinary way Bell structured it.

It’s about two brothers named Homer and Langley who live in a house filled with tons of junk. Newspapers and stuff. 120 tons of junk. They’re real, I guess. It happened, something along these lines actually happened. Matt Bell did not make this up. It was probably in the newspaper. Matt Bell researched the source material then wrote it differently. The story occurs in the third person, but there are portions in the second-person and a framed story told with an I-voice, which covers the discovery of the larger framework and I wonder: what’s Matt Bell trying to pull?

Bell could well have written this after reading Endgame by Beckett and whatever book is the opposite of Endgame by Beckett – maybe Krapp’s Last Tape by Beckett.

Endgame is always called “Cartesian” because the set, a barren room with two windows, represents the interior of a skull. Clov, hardly mobile, cares for Hamm, who is completely immobile. Homer is chair-bound (like Hamm) and Langley assists him (like Clov). The story about Homer and Langley is cerebral too, but it isn’t brainy. Also, it isn’t not brainy. It’s a little nugget, a walnut. If Endgame functions as a cogito, then The Collectors works as a cluttered one.

Thus the cluttered comparison to Krapp’s Last Tape. There are disorderly piles of boxes and old archival reels in Krapp’s room, where he’s listening to that recording he made about his lovely boat ride or whatever. There’s only one person in this story, Krapp. There’s a thing with a banana, with the peel.

In The Collectors there’s a thing with orange peels. When Langley’s self-set traps pin him under a boulder of sewing machines outside the master bedroom, Homer is left stranded on his own. He tries to find his brother, but gets lost among the labyrinthine stacks. Dejected now, Homer tries to make it back to where he keeps his chair and realizes he’s arrived when, with exhausted fingers, he touches fruity detritus.

Homer, blind, eats lots of oranges to cure his eyesight. That was Langley’s idea.

There’s a lot of stuff in the house. This is a big story, one “[s]upported by scraps of lumber and stacked newspaper or cardboard” – (which is how Bell describes the house). The whole thing is like a maze, and the story matches that framework. Even the chapter headings are jumbled. The chapter headings have all gone awry. The Collectors doesn’t walk the line of Ch1–Ch 2–Ch 3, it goes 1A–3A–2A–4A– 3B–1B and so on. It’s cool. On page 52 comes chapter 5A.

First I read straight through the book. Then I read straight through the A sections, then through the B sections, like that. Someday I plan to read all the 1 sections. Why not? You can choose however you want to read The Collectors. You can read it several times and be fooled into thinking it’s several books. Having written several books and then collapsing them all into the same story, Matt Bell’s The Collectors is a jaw-dropping achievement.

Naturally, you can choose however you want to read any book, but with The Collectors (and Nabokov’s Pale Fire), it makes sense to mix it up a little. Because the story’s layers, like the packing of Homer and Langley’s house, are so dense, even fans of convention can enjoy the innovations here; even a glossing of the rich depths makes for an enveloping read.

Someone Else's BodySomeone Else’s Body

By Claire Donato

Cannibal Books, 2009

Reviewed by Gina Myers

“The night you leave, I write tourist across my stomach with regard to everything I’ve ever done,” begins the poem “There are apologies I am too.” The speaker later concludes, “You have to pass the time.” There are a number of ways to do this: you can try to sleep, you can remember the past, or you can write poems about passing the time. Claire Donato’s Someone Else’s Body is a collection of ten poems varying in style and length, but all seemingly haunted by the past and centered on absence and loss.

Despite its use of direct language, there is a strangeness to the worlds Donato captures in her poems. Something familiar turns into something unfamiliar, detaches itself from the usual relationships and associations. In the opening poem, “The Night, What It Allows,” the speaker is in a house where “the walls are tearing / out of their paint” and “the window next / to the television is turning away.” The house seems uncomfortable in its frame, just as the speaker lying on top of the television is uncomfortable and charting her fear.

Discomfort abounds and is perhaps most present in the title poem, which is about pregnancy and detachment (“Still, it continues to grow…”), and in “Dermatographism,” a longer poem about relationships, “cutting,” and self-mutilation, There is a claustrophobic feeling to these poems. Donato writes in “Dermatographism”:

When the mind furies, it may or may not be recollecting.

It may or may not be attempting to unweave

remembrance, which has become a rich part of life, but when

does remembrance become constriction? We are always

inside of the walls: we want to know others—we want to

be lost outside of ourselves…

The voice here desires to break out of the house, to break out of itself, to know others. This desire to reach out and connect with others is revealed in the collection’s many addresses and pleas to an unidentified “you.” In “I have some things to tell you,” the speaker claims: “I want to look at you & see myself: I want to look at you & see / you in a sheet.” However, these attempts to connect often seem frustrated: despite the desire, no connection is made. A kind of connection is achieved in the poem “bed” where two people turn to each other for warmth, but this connection quickly turns disturbing:

frozen he

turns over, warms his fingers on her—lids, she says: pulp, plum, fire-

wood & nestle hot on the skin

jolts her tightly—tightly she un-

weaves thread from the lining,

the blanket of the bed—braiding it into a rope

she ties around like a noose

on his neck

This poem, minimalistic and effectively using the white space of the page, is the most stripped- down in the collection. It ends with a mysterious list of details:

bruise, bruised, bruising —sheet of chrysanthemums in the basement

the pocket knife, folded— the radiator, the empty corridor,

The final punctuation is a comma that hangs on the page, waits for the list to continue, to break the silence of that heavy pause.

Someone Else’s Body is a strong collection. In “Address to California,” Donato writes: “It is possible I am inventing a history in which words are interchangeable and based solely on your neck and lips and shoulders.” Some of the mystery in these poems may come from this private history, shielded from the reader by the interchangeability of the words, but the ache of longing created by distance, whether geographical or historical, is palpable in these terse lyrics, lyrics that are exact and mysterious at once.



E-chapbook by Nada Gordon
Scantily Clad Press, 2009
46 pages

Reviewed by Michael Leong

“In modern times, the poetic list-form has a tendency to be hidden. But we can flush it out without too much trouble, if we wish. Consider, in the diaries of poets, that the erudites lovingly publish for our pleasure and our instruction shopping lists; consider their beautiful and inspired laundry lists”

—Jacques Roubaud

I love lists—the frisson of accumulation, the pulsing simplicity of parataxis. I love to browse them, to follow them as they effusively unfurl, and then to slow down and savor a particularly delicious linguistic cluster. I like how the list poem or catalog poem is so demotic, so basic (I just did a Google search for “catalog poem” and the first listed page was “Catalog Poem: Teaching Kids to Write”) but, in the hands of a master, the list poem can certainly bristle with surprise and mystery.

I agree with Roubaud that the poetic list-form is the ur-poetic form and some of my favorite poetic lists can be found in the following texts: Jorge Luis Borges’ “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins,” François Rabelais’ “Anatomy of Fastilent as regards the outward parts,” Andre Breton’s “Freedom of Love” (which is also, coincidentally, one of my favorite love poems), John Yau’s “I Was A Poet In The House of Frankenstein” (also one of my favorite movie poems), Homer’s “Catalogue of Ships” (for purely historical reasons), the “Food” section of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, John Ashbery’s The Vermont Notebook, Christopher Smart’s “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” (especially the line, “For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command”), the obligatory Whitman passage that begins, “The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,” a Christopher Dewdney poem whose title I’m now forgetting (it’s in the New Long Poem Anthology), Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings, Raymond Queneau’s Elementary Morality, and the bit from Rimbaud’s “Second Delirium: Alchemy of the Word” that ends, “erotic books with bad spelling, novels our grandmothers used to read, fairy-tales, little books for children, old operas, meaningless refrains, crude rhythms.” Now I can add to this unending and idiosyncratic list Nada Gordon’s latest chapbook Interests, which Gordon (who is perhaps best known for being a member of the Flarf Collective) terms a work of “insta-poetry.”

On her blog ~~ululations~~, Gordon provides some more useful comments about the text’s composition:

Here’s how I wrote the book, actually: Have you ever noticed that if you list your interests on your blogger profile, your interests become links? If you click on the links, you can find other bloggers who have listed the same interests on their profiles. The first page of my chapbook is my list of interests. Every other page is a purloined list from someone who was automatically linked to me. I did choose from the lists, selecting those that were most prosodic and quirky, and I did edit the lists internally a tiny bit.

As one would expect, this collaged and “collaborative” text is an easy and funny read. I would even say that reading this chapbook was “relaxing” in the way Tan Lin intends Blipsoak01 (2003) to be relaxing—not unlike flipping on the E! network for a few moments after a particularly filling supper.

In the spirit of remixability, here’s my own list of what I thought were some of the most “interesting” items in Interests:

rufflers, Extra virgin olive oil, being angry, zelda, super powerful female vocalists who are actually men, talking about where to go when the zombies come, asian friends, bling, nice clouds, medieval music, profanity etymology, stride piano, vintage Tupperware, young hairy men, yuyos, The fact that you can’t suck your elbow, gross animation, writing, “writing,” Dog Vomit Slime Mold, cooking for Jen.

Reading this book, I felt that certain blushing sense of pathos I get whenever I see someone else’s interests on public display (like hearing someone’s earphones blasting Ace of Base on a rush hour subway or seeing a woman on the train lost in a paperback called Naked Love.) After all, one’s interests form so much a part of one’s subjectivity and are thus intimate. In this sense, Interests is a quite intimate book despite its clinical cut-and-paste procedure. It also reminded me how performative one’s interests can be—like when you see some grave personage on the subway aggressively brandishing a book of high theory.

But, above all, Interests is a fascinating document of the virtual socialities that the Internet enables, a poetic tribute to our digital culture of blogrolls and Listmania. Apart from its humorous surface, I particularly admire the simplicity and elegance of its conceptual impetus. I’d certainly put it on my list of best chapbooks of 2009.

conceptualisms-cover1Notes On Conceptualisms

By Vanessa Place & Robert Fitterman
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009
80 pages, perfect-bound
ISBN: 978-1-933254-46-3

Erasure/Remix/Review by Christopher Higgs

There was some question as to whether or not erasure strategies would fit under the rubric of conceptual writing, whether or not conceptual writing might best be defined by the expectations of the readership or thinkership, by failure, shape, or add/subtract.

Is appropriation a problem?

The goal of conceptual writing is failure. Radical mimesis is original sin.

Words are objects—allegorical writing is conceptual writing—with no aesthetic or ethical distinctions. Walter Benjamin. Paul de Mann. Idea/Symbol.

Fiction meaning poetry meaning history meaning the future state of having been.


The distinction is between pre-texts and post-texts. “Impure” conceptualism or post-conceptualism might invite “impure” or post-conceptualism. Narrativity, unutterability. Broken promise, textual excess, micro, macro, post-production, hybrid, segregation. More than/rather than.

Leibniz, Lacan, Hal Foster.

There are end-points to any spectrum.

The baroque thinkership. Failure. Result, repeat. Failure. Allegory, allegorical, adorable, Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin. Appropriation and montage. Conceptual writing. Adorno and Horkheimer. Pure conceptualism negates consumption/generation.

Note: failure.
Note: failure.

Christine Buci-Glucksmann. Stephen Heath. Again, Badiou speaks. The skull is the heart. Craig Owen. Sherrie Levine. Kenneth Goldsmith. Fidelity problem, or the failure of fidelity. Richard Prince. Eirin Moure. Jen Bervin. Shakespeare. Duchampean.

Note that there is no escape from this regime, which will banalize and commodify any mass attempt at subversion.

Slavoj Žižek. Sianne Ngai. Lucille Ball. Charlie Chaplin. Duck Soup. Capitalism.

To have one’s cake and vomit it up. Re-enacting the purge is very American. Allegorical content/Allegorical gesture. The promise of fetish.

Narrative is the (image) of prose; sentiment is the (image) of poetry. The (image).

Mallarmé. Render the object/subject closed/open. Multiple readings, multiple meanings, equivalencies, Kant (this is Beauty) this is sentimental, this is allegorical, this is, this is, this is The Sobject.

The brain is a piece of body meat.

Craig Dworkin. Christine Werthheim. Simon Critchley.

Maturity or immaturity? Fidelity or infidelity? Faithfulness or faithlessness? Nevermore or nevertheless?

The Woman, the figure of The Woman, abstracted and idiosyncratic – a physic or metaphysic? – inclusive/accessible, elite/rarified, both generative and receptive?

Collage, pastiche, procedure, constraint, performance, citation, book object/page object.

The Sobject.

Pound, Berrigan, Ashbery = emergent/dominant/extent. Ironize/lionize, Rauschenberg, Picasso.

Sampling is status-neutral but ontologically dense. Sometimes typing, sometimes grammar, sometimes the Cagean cage, the narrative container; silence, prevalence, absorption, capitalist absorption, Gary Sullivan, Charles Bernstein, “official verse”, Institutional Critique, Alexander Alberro, Dirk Rowentree; the reading, the course, the blurb, the course, the reading, the blurb, the project, the manifesto, the blurb, the scene, the scene, the scene, the now.

Transparency is self-refuting.
Thesis: a connective connectivity (see: Wittgenstein/Rancière).

Proposition: the readymade.
Proof: Heimrad Backer’s transcript (the Nazi exterminations, a laudatory review of a laudatory Hitler, forthcoming Dalkey Archive, 2010).
Guilt and subsequent textual silence.
Compare: Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust.

Appropriated testimony, lyric form.

Fidelity to fidelity. Infidelity to infidelity.
This is the difference between negative and positive space. The Final Solution. The Inkblot Records. The postcard-placard effect of history.
Compare: Fitterman’s Sprawl: Place’s Dies.
This is the difference between:
word/wound: language kills pure conceptualism, impure conceptualism;
word/wound: the screaming Sobject, the possibility of possibility;
this is the difference between ethics/aesthetics/(politics)/citation/(baroque/broken);
this is the difference between failure/Glorious Failure!


Superstitions of Apartment Life

By Pedro Ponce
Burnside Review Press

Reviewed by Greg Gerke

I have enjoyed Pedro Ponce’s work in such journals as Caketrain and elimae. After seeing that Aimee Bender selected him as winner of the Burnside Review Press Fiction Chapbook Contest I was even further intrigued. Reading Superstitions of Apartment Life, I discovered a manual of sorts with no discernable narrative. A collage of terms. I was perplexed. Had Ponce decided to abandon fiction in favor of list making? Not exactly.

In Superstitions of Apartment Life, Pedro Ponce indexes alphabetically various terms from “Ant” to “Hanging Garden,” from “Solumancy to Zootomancy.” The terms cover a wide range, from the household (a dirty word in the history of tenements) to the magical. They highlight the cloistered population’s lives, their small, cramped quarters beset by a parade of pests (ants, pigeons, rats, spiders, moths, the oracle bug) and superstitions (zymurgy: the finding of foreign currency in apartments and their meaning), plus a few of Ponce’s own manipulation, including evection: the influence of the lunar phases on mood and behavior with definitions for waxing, full, waning and new). Augury, omens, harbingers, oracles, taboos and superstitions abound. For instance, the borrowing of condiments in many early tenements was considered “obscene.” Here we also learn that “Hanging Gardens” (a popular gift for tenement-bound newlyweds) were originally designed for King Nebuchadnezzar’s wife in 590 B.C.E. as she missed the lushness of her homeland.

In a Cortazarian twist, there are in fact two ways to read the chapbook: to start from the beginning, or to start with the first entry “Address.” It contains the directive to go see the entry “Mail” where you’ll find a two paragraph gloss on the subject that ends with a true postal error from Gordon Griffin’s Compendium of Tenement Lore (1912), and then the directive to “See also Equine.” Since “Equine” has no further directive the reader is free to return to the beginning or meander in the E’s and F’s for a while until the text directs the reader to the S’s. And so on.

Ponce’s prose sometimes assumes the tone of a 1950’s instruction manual while at other times it busts a seam with its hyper-poetic sensibility and eye on modern life. While the entry on “Bachelor’s Ring” (“The grime and matted hair that encircles the drain of an infrequently cleaned bathtub”) is an example of the former, the entry on “Laundry” offers a broader definition:

Laundry is considered a process of renewal: we feed our soiled and wrinkled garments into concavities burnished and sleek as the mouths of idols; watch the contents porpoise cheerfully in arcs through purifying suds and spray; transfer sodden braids to dryer’s maw, from which our clothes emerge restored to a warm, billowing blankness.

There is transcendence to the life confined. Our day-to-day chores mesmerize us and also make us more or less open to human contact, depending on the task. But there is a darkness to the apartment dweller’s psychology as well. As Ponce writes in “House,” “The tenant scuttles, perpetually in transit, a hermit crab in search of its shell.”

At the back of the book is a two page list of sources, dictionaries of omens and urban legends, Ponce used. From these come anecdotes like one in the “Feline” entry about the Tenement Poets (1902-1910) and an entire sonnet about a cat by Irving Hays. Ponce writes:

The cat’s influence on Hays was short-lived. In 1911, the poet’s landlord, impatient to claim three months of owed rent, entered Hay’s suite and found his week-old corpse swinging from a ceiling fixture.

Ponce’s dabbling in these minutiae also includes a wealth of humor. For instance, in the entry “Canon of Provisional Topics,” the appropriate topics of conversation for new acquaintances as listed from oldest to most recent are: “1. Weather, 2. Music, 3. Food, 4. Celebrities in trouble, and 5. Yoga.”

As an anthropological study of magic and superstition in the quiet spaces of apartments, Superstitions of Apartment Life marks new territory for Ponce, and it is a striking work. And as in Beckett, Ponce’s objects, places, and spaces come alive and take on a glimmering and sometimes benighted meaning. It is a world rich in possibilities and probabilities.

Isn’t This What You Were Looking For?

By Ken Sparling

(Mud Luscious Press; unpaginated)

Reviewed by Tobias Carroll

Ken Sparling’s Isn’t This What You Were Looking For? is a fragmented work, a brief and jarring piece of carefully structured prose. On an initial read, with perspectives shifting from sentence to sentence, vignettes seemingly beginning and ending without rhyme nor reason, and its elusive action, Sparling’s prose felt nearly impenetrable. Sparling’s approach isn’t quite Gary Lutz’s Cubist sentences or the narrative handoffs of William T. Vollmann, but the principle is the same: this is prose that demands a minute attention to detail. Subsequent readings revealed more of Sparling’s structure: events reoccur at moments throughout the chapbook, and the way perspectives change becomes more ordered, the underlying structure more clear.

“I was on the verge of losing my job. In fact, I suddenly realized, everything in my life was about to collapse.” That’s Sparling’s narrator describing their situation early on in Isn’t This What You Were Looking For? Though given that first person plural is used earlier on the same page, and given that the “I” a page earlier seems far more together than this “I,” the plural form of narrator might be even more appropriate. One of the delights of this chapbook is watching the ways in which Sparling plays with the rhythms of his text: two sentences beginning with “We” followed by two that begin with “She”; the way that a rain shower echoes across the pages, slowly becoming a harbinger of something more ominous than bad weather.

Sparling’s approach here can be both exhausting and inscrutable. You find oneself marveling at the structures he creates while still feeling hard-pressed to explain exactly what has taken place in the handful of pages that comprise Isn’t This What You Were Looking For? (Also worth mentioning is that this chapbook is excerpted from a longer work entitled Book.) In the end, it’s the signposts that Sparling provides that reveal the purpose of this particular structure. “I wanted to know how the boy & the girl met. I wanted to know what it was like to meet like that,” we read on the first page. Love then; and the downward spiral; and, on the story’s final page, mortality, leavened bleakly.


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