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Uses For Language That We Haven’t Yet Imagined a Life For

In Jots on February 7, 2013 at 7:00 am

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From an introduction to a reading by Joe McElroy at the MFA Program Poets and Writers Reading Series at Temple University in November 2012.

Joe McElroy is a longtime friend of the Temple Graduate Creative Writing program—going back to the 90s. He has been writer-in-residence twice and he has used this venue, the Poets and Writers Series, to debut new work many times. He is our familiar. So it is easy to forget that Joe McElroy is also one of the great fiction writers of our time, about whom one can claim, without exaggeration, that he has changed the form. He is changing the form of fiction. This lends a special excitement to the moment of his reading tonight.

In 10 novels and shorter fictions, Joe McElroy has primed readers’ expectations that they will always know themselves on the last page in a way that was unimaginable on the first. Joe’s books, from the earliest, A Smuggler’s Bible, to the more recent, Actress in the House are nothing if not feats of discovery: or perhaps it is best to say that in McElroy’s fictions every word pushes us to the threshold of a new rapport with the world. The marvelous variety of Joe’s fictive inventions attune us to uses for language that, in a sense, we haven’t yet imagined a life for. He tests our resilience for new experience.

No doubt examples are in order. Well, I think of the way that consciousness travels from character to character in Joe’s magnum opus Women and Men. It makes us think that the concept of character itself may not be enough to express what it means to be human. Or I think of that disembodied brain in Joe’s fabulous quasi-science fiction novel, Plus. In the brain’s decaying orbit of the earth, hurtling toward its own destruction, it gathers its memories around it with a verbal density that feels like a body gathering inertia. Reading in the arc of its fall we can’t escape the thought that our own mental fate might be to become ever more fascinated strangers to our physical existence. Plus is an out of body—inner being experience, all at once. In Actress in the House, an act of staged violence in a theatrical performance stages our own coming to blows with the force of syntax in McElroy’s prose. McElroy deploys the sentence in a way that refuses vicarious passage into a scene of action. We are the actors in the scene of the sentence. In McElroy’s fiction each word doesn’t so much fit the sentence as it makes the sentence fit a world whose dimensions we are still learning to compass.

The hallmark of this fiction is its inducement for us to become speculative about our experience without losing the immediacy of the most viscerally “felt” moments of life. It is the stuff of experimental practice with the understanding that experimentation is no different in the humanities than in the sciences. Its value is its usefulness to us. McElroy’s books are indeed useful experiments. As McElroy says in one of his marvelously self-reflective essays: “being exposed to a work of art adds to a person in a way that can’t be separated from usefulness” (“Personal”). Well, personal usefulness portends a future. For my money this is what McElroy’s fiction is all about, the future of fiction. So when we speak of McElroy changing the form of the work of art, the form of fiction, we can take the liberty of thinking that this has something to do with us. I don’t know what greater hopefulness a writer can bestow upon his readers.

Please join me in welcoming one of the really useful artists of our time, Joe McElroy.

-Alan Singer

Image Credit: Dalkey Archive Press

Island, Horse, Car

In Images on February 6, 2013 at 7:00 am

by Owen Osborne

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Owen Osborne is a photographer and musician living in Wayne, PA. He specializes in instant film photography and plays music with his band The Beekeepers in Philadelphia and the Main Line area.

He Took the Charge Well: In Memory of Anselm Hollo

In Essays on February 4, 2013 at 7:00 am

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by Allan Kornblum

The following piece originally appeared in the Coffee House Press blog on January 30.

Anselm Hollo
Born in Helsinki, Finland, April 12, 1934. Died in Boulder, Colorado, January 29, 2013.

Dedication: A Toke for Li Po

born in pa-hsi province
of szechwan
lived muchos años
at the court of the emperor

ming huang, but was banished
as a result of falling
in disfavor? with the empress
kao li-shih, & wandered about china thereafter

only occasionally attached to a patron
leading a “dissolute” life, addicted? to drink
writing the poems about the joys of that life

notably wine, & woman, & all the rest
& agitation of the sensational universe

came to his death by falling
out of a boat & drowning
in an attempt to have intimate intercourse
with the moon
in the water

one of those of
whom it is said:

“he took the charge well”

*

That poem appeared in Heavy Jars, published in the fall of 1977 under the Toothpaste Press imprint, the first of many of Anselm’s books we collaborated on over the many years we knew each other. I’ll return to the poem shortly.

Anselm’s father was a professor of philosophy at the University of Helsinki, and an important translator of major works of fiction and philosophy from many languages. In a way he was like a one-man Penguin Classics, introducing—in some cases for the first time—authors from Russia, England, Germany, and France to Finnish readers. But Anselm’s mother wanted him to be a scientist, like her own father. His long, rich, literary career—regarded as a treasure by so many—was a disappointment to her. But his was not an unhappy childhood: in another poem from Heavy Jars, “Helsinki, 1940,” Anselm charmingly revisits his six-year-old take on World War II—the excitement of the “big lights in the sky” and the intimacy of the bomb shelter, where he was “safe in the earth, surrounded by many / all of whom really felt like living.”

The one part of his life I wish I knew better was his work at the BBC. In addition to reading the nightly news in his pleasant, rumbling baritone, Anselm collaborated with other staff writers on a number of radio dramas in the early 1960s. Released in printed form for staff use only, and presented under a variety of pseudonyms, those scripts are now lost forever. Don’t those days sound like fun? It was during those UK years that he and Josephine Claire had their three children, Hannes, Kaarina, and Tamsin.

Anselm told me that Paul Blackburn was responsible for getting him his first job in the States, at SUNY Buffalo in 1965. He returned to Finland and the UK for visits from time to time, but after that first gig, he was able to find one teaching job after another—like Li Po finding his patrons—enabling him to make his home in America. Eventually he and Jane Dalrymple-Hollo settled permanently and very happily in Boulder , where he became a valued member of the core faculty at the Jack Kerouac School of Poetics at Naropa University.

I first met Anselm in the summer of 1970, in the English/Philosophy Building (EPB) at the University of Iowa, when I arrived in Iowa City from New York’s Lower East Side, determined to start school over as a poet. (I had previously attended NYU as a voice education major, but dropped out.) I went from one office to another at the EPB, looking for submissions for the first issue of my soon-to-be published mimeo magazine, Toothpaste, and was starting to get discouraged. I was not yet aware of the hostility between most of the faculty at the Writers’ Workshop and the St. Mark’s Poetry Project. (They say academic feuds are so vicious because the stakes are so low. With even lower stakes, poetry feuds can make academic feuds seem like tea parties.)

But then I walked into Anselm’s office—he was a welcoming revelation, as he has been all his life. With (as I later learned) his signature chuckle, which seemed to bubble up effortlessly from the depths of the earth, he told me he would be delighted to participate, gave me his address, and told me to visit him at his home, where he would give me some poems and we could get to know each other. Over the next few decades, we shared a protégé/mentor relationship that continues to reverberate in my life.

Between 1970–1972, Anselm invited me to join him on two trips to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls to hear Andrei Vosnesensky and Gary Snyder read; the drive was about an hour long each way. We arrived late for the Vosnesensky reading because Anselm had a flat tire. Never mechanically inclined, he suggested we tie a handkerchief to the radio antenna and wait for help. I had never changed a tire before, but for reasons that seem foolish now, I was confident that I could do so. Fortunately my wife Cinda was with me for that adventure, and together we got the job done, and somehow arrived just as a nice-but-colorless man from the Russian language department began to introduce the evening. In stunning black clothes and boots, Vosnesensky looked and read like a rock star. Later, at the reception, the grateful guest poet told me that Anselm’s City Lights chapbook, Red Cats, was the first book to introduce him and Yevgeny Yevtushenko to American readers. Anselm was later embarrassed by the translation, because his Russian was actually quite primitive compared to his knowledge of German, French, and the various Scandinavian languages. But in its day, that little booklet, which appeared in the midst of the Cold War, was truly groundbreaking.

On the next trip, we arrived early enough to join Gary Snyder for a pre-reading dinner, accompanied by someone from the English department who was responsible for getting their guest to the auditorium on time. Anselm was very close to many poets; with Snyder it was more of a “lots-of-friends-in-common” relationship. But they clearly enjoyed each other’s company and conversation. Somehow the conversation that evening wound up straying into, and then focusing on, the migration of peoples from Central Asia into Europe between 400 and 800 CE; the two of them just dug into that obscure period of history as if they were chewing over last week’s news. I was amused to learn from their discussion that there had once been a seminomadic tribe called the Alans. But I also remember feeling astonished by their extensive knowledge, and reminded of the serious reading that was yet ahead of me.

Of course the great adventure of that period was a week-long trek to a “National Poetry Festival” in Allendale, Michigan, with Anselm, Darrell Gray, and a fortunately sober (if at times stuffy) poet (name now forgotten) who did most of the driving (Anselm and Darrell were drinking, and I didn’t know how to drive in those days). I spent a lot of memorable time with Ted Berrigan and Robert Creeley (with whom Anselm was very close), and some brief but valued time with Philip Whalen (whom Anselm idolized), Paul Blackburn (who was dying), and Joel Oppenheimer (whom I remember as supremely sardonic). I cemented a lifelong friendship with Ken Mikolowski of the Alternative Press (I had met him earlier at a small press conference). And I also very briefly met and/or attended readings by Robert Bly, Armand Schwerner, Robert Kelly, Diane Wakoski, Sonia Sanchez, Tom Weatherly, John Logan, Gregory Corso, and many more. Oddly enough, the school hosting the event was in a dry county, and everyone was looking for twelve-packs. So on an afternoon I’ll never forget, I sat in the backseat of Anselm’s car listening to Robert Creeley brilliantly expound, zooming intently from topic to topic, while Anselm at the wheel and Ted Berrigan riding shotgun searched for a liquor store in the next county. I remember that we were eventually successful in our quest; I remember Creeley offering to put us up at a motel when we seemed hopelessly lost; and I remember Anselm and Ted assuring Creeley that they could find the way. But how we eventually did get back to that small-town campus is lost to the fog of time.

By the time Heavy Jars was published, Anselm had given me poems for each of the seven issues of Toothpaste, had stored the first printing press I bought in his garage until I had a home for it, and had attended my wedding. But most importantly, he encouraged me to believe that I could make a significant contribution to the literary community as a small press publisher. That encouragement gave me the confidence to get started, and today I’m so pleased that our first book together continues to hold up as one of my best printing efforts. It also includes the kinds of connections/associations for me that e-books will forever, inevitably lack.

• The Plantin type had been given to me and Cinda as a wedding present from Harry Duncan, our letterpress printing teacher, who sold us his house when he moved to Omaha. Under the Cummington Press imprint, Harry had printed first editions by William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, as well as Robert Lowell’s very first book. He is now long gone, but Duncan’s devotion to his craft continues to inspire me.

• The type was named for Christopher Plantin, whose press began in 1555 and closed shortly before World War I, when surviving family members donated the shop to the city of Antwerp, which turned it into a museum that I hope to visit someday. Plantin’s motto was Labore et Constancia—By Labor and Constancy, or as some might translate it today, hard work and tenacity—both needed to run a publishing house. I have absolutely no doubt that Duncan was sending me a message with his gift.

• In the Tom-Sawyer-and-the-picket-fence spirit that has always been part of the survival of small literary publishing houses, Alan Frank, then owner of a delightfully dinky secondhand bookstore in Iowa City, volunteered to handset the type in return for learning how to do so.

• And finally the cover art was donated by Patrick Dooley—who also designed the Toothpaste Press printer’s mark, which appeared on all our title pages—in return for the honor of participating in a book by Anselm Hollo.

Cinda and I were married in August 1972; we somehow managed (with the help of many friends) to get the half-ton Challenge Gordon platen press into our new home that fall. We spent the next year accumulating the additional equipment needed for an active letterpress print shop: type cabinets with cases filled with a variety of fonts and sizes of type, galley cabinets and trays for storing work in progress, leads and slugs, a lead and slug cutter, a paper cutter, composing sticks, a proof press, an imposing surface, furniture for locking up type, quoins and quoin keys, and so on. By fall 1973 we were printing our first full-length book, and by the time Heavy Jars came out in 1977, the Toothpaste Press was starting to seem almost “established.” But literary history is littered with stories of small presses that burned brightly, faded, and were snuffed out within a single decade. It still remained to be seen whether I had a life-long career as a literary publisher in me, whether I had the dedication.

Which brings me back to the poem at the beginning of this reminiscence, the poem I chose to represent Anselm, or perhaps to represent my feelings about him. Of course some might read the poem, roll their eyes, wag a finger, and lecture about what could seem like a justification for the excessive drinking that marred an early period of Anselm’s life—if they wanted to merely gloss the surface, and be a bit of a prig. But to me, the poem turns on two meanings of dedication, and three meanings of charge.

Yes, the poem is dedicated to a heavy drinker, but remember that Anselm was a devoted teacher, and teachers only reveal enough to pique their students’ interest, hoping they’ll do some reading and learn more on their own. Li Po did write of the pleasures of wine, but was also fanatically devoted to the classics, studied traditional Chinese poetic forms while stretching their possibilities, and yet, like Anselm, wore his scholarship lightly. And like Anselm, many of Li Po’s poems feel like an ongoing conversation with all the great writers of the past and present, whom they both regarded as part of their family of favorite drinking buddies. Anselm of course knew the story of Li Po drowning while embracing a reflection of the moon was the stuff of legend, but I believe he included the tall tale because it spoke to him of the all-out lifetime dedication to literature their work and lives embodied.

And then there is the charge, all toted up. A life of bills that cannot be paid on time; the moments of feeling ridiculous when introduced as a poet, of all things, at class and family reunions; and within the “field” itself, the awards others win, the reviews others get, the doubts in the dark of the night. It comes to quite a sum and can levy a heavy toll over the years.

The poem also speaks to me of the charge as in the responsibility of the poet for the language, for the fleeting ideas that seem to arrive like news from Alpha Centauri, the illusions that somehow reveal a truth, or what seems like truth but is ultimately a beautiful and perhaps tempting illusion. That charge doesn’t suit all poets comfortably. Some wear it like badly fitted clothes that never were and never will be in style. But in the hearts of a rare few like Anselm Hollo, that responsibility glows softly and steadily with a casual grace, a light that forever gives students, readers, and dear friends indescribable pleasure, and at times, desperately needed hope.

Finally there is the charge, the attack, the poet diving headlong, with single-minded focus, into the work, never knowing how circuitous a route the poem may ultimately take, or how many obstacles may block the path. And that reminds me of one of my fondest and most amusing moments with Anselm, which took place at the Qounty Quart House, a working man’s bar in West Branch, Iowa, where Cinda and I lived in Harry Duncan’s former house, from 1972 until we moved to Minnesota in 1985. After downing a few beers, Anselm put a dollar down on the edge of the pool table, waited his turn, put a quarter in the slot, racked up the balls, and prepared to play the winner of the previous game. Suddenly, after gazing at the tight triangle at the far end of the green felt, he looked up at his opponent and asked, “Do the pool balls ever remind you of the Roman legions, lined up in formation, waiting for their orders?” After a puzzled “Huh?” Anselm said, “Ah, never mind, it was just a thought.” Then he leaned over the table and positioned his cue for the break.

To soldiers, police, or firefighters, speaking of a poet on the attack might seem completely incongruous. But how many of them would be willing to stand stark naked before the world with only their words to clothe them, as do poets over and over, year after year? It is one thing to charge into a fight or a burning fire, but it takes another kind of courage to plunge into the hidden recesses of the mind and the heart, and to reveal both the marvels of the mundane and hidden secrets that range from the silly to the sublime.

As Shakespeare said, in a lifetime we all play many parts. Anselm Hollo was a loving son, brother, husband, and father; an omnivorous scholar; a meticulous yet graceful translator; a teacher to thousands of grateful students; a faithful and endlessly entertaining friend; a brilliant raconteur; and at his core, a simultaneously gentle and fearless poet. With his earthshaking laugh that at once embraced and brushed off the absurdities of life, Anselm Hollo was definitely “one of those of whom it is said, he took the charge well.”

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Allan Kornblum is senior editor and founder of Coffee House Press.

Photo: hs.fi