Wednesday, January 31, 2024

David Melnick, Nice: Collected Poems, eds. Alison Fraser, Benjamin Friedlander, Jeffrey Jullich & Ron Silliman


            I found Melnick’s work after moving to Berkeley, where he lived in the late 1960s and early ‘70s before moving across the Bay to San Francisco. I had heard tell of his readings of PCOET—his “correct” pronunciations, how only a few could remember the exact sounds his private language formed. I had heard of his famous Homer Group, and read how Melnick’s voice was infectious among the other “Homersexuals,” how his homophonics perversely instigated a kind of Bacchic frenzy. I remember being shown an event flyer from 1974, from the now-defunct Cody’s Books, featuring Melnick reading with Telegraph’s “Bubble Lady,” Julia Vinograd. I would walk past the former Cody’s building daily to feel their presences decades after.

Melnick’s work created a kind of orbit, tugging me to its center, but the force that propelled my obsession was impossible to see. Was it that Melnick gave language to queer feelings I had known somewhere deep inside me, but had been unable to voice? Was it that his work points to a kind of unspeakability of these very “qqrer!” feelings? I am left wondering what kinds of queer feelings we can represent in queer (il)legibilities. Whether Melnick offers us a cipher, a code, a means of reckoning with language and its limits, feelings and the limits of representing those feelings, too. (Noah Ross, “(POETS; EXIST?”)

I hadn’t even heard of San Francisco poet David Melnick (1938-2022) before this new collection landed in my mailbox—Nice: Collected Poems, eds. Alison Fraser, Benjamin Friedlander, Jeffrey Jullich & Ron Silliman (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2023)—a book that includes preface on the author by poet and critic Noah Ross [see my ’12 or 20 questions’ with him here; see my review of his second collection here], and a collaborative introduction-proper by the four editors. I’m fascinated by these seeming-reclamation projects that American publisher Nightboat Books has been publishing over the past decade or so (possibly longer, but I’ve only been aware of their work for the past dozen-plus years), all of which swirl around particular writers and writings, allowing documentation for a wealth of literary activity, specifically: by, about and through queer writers and writing. Some of the collections I’ve been particularly impressed by include their Beautiful Aliens: A Steve Abbott Reader, edited by Jamie Townsend with an afterword by Alysia Abbott (2019) [see my review of such here], We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics, eds. Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel (2020) [see my review of such here] and Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997, eds. Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian (2017) [see my review of such here]. I’d probably also include the collection On Autumn Lake: The Collected Essays (2022) by American poet and critic Douglas Crase [see my review of such here] to this list as well. There is something to be acknowledged and appreciated in Nightboat’s ongoing attentions to providing critical consideration, examination and celebration to these histories that might otherwise have been overlooked, misunderstood or even completely forgotten. As the first poem of Melnick’s posthumous collection, the five-page “I. LE CALME,” ends:

These languages pass away:

                :fellatio, of subjection

            now kings are dead
        because the head is lowered

                “eyes ripe as olives

                “a green sea knobby

bit by worms
stirred, in
the main stream

                “bee keeper seized the earth
                “size of a star

                Walking, sorrow slew me

Nice: Collected Poems collects four previously-published limited-edition works by Melnick across nearly fifty years of scattered production: Eclogs (Ithica House, 1973), PCOET (G.A.W.K., 1975), Men in Aïda (Tuumba Press, 1983) and A Pin’s Fee (Logopoeia website, 2002; Hiding Press, 2019). There’s a liveliness to this work, one that sweeps unapologetically into experimentation and the playfully-ridiculous, a quality that is quite refreshing; the earlier works clearly showcase a poet of his period, employing a particular flavour of 1960s and 70s experimentation, but somehow timeless, offering an expansive play across meaning, sound and the lyric through a poetics of subverted and invented language. It would be impossible not to be simultaneously charged and charmed by the expansive heft of the poem “Men in Aïda,” a homophonic translation of the Iliad, a piece that can’t not be heard aloud, even from within the bounds of quiet reading. The language really is propulsive, and my ears can catch comparisons with language/sound poets north of the border, from bpNichol and Christian Bök to The Four Horsemen, Gary Barwin and Gregory Betts (among others). Such glorious gymnastics of sound! As Melnick’s poem begins:

Men in Aïda, they appeal, eh? a day, O Achilles!
Allow men in, every Achaians. All gay ethic, eh?
Paul asked if tea mousse suck, as Aïda, pro, yaps in.
Here on a Tuesday. ‘Hello,’ Rhea to cake Eunice in.
‘Hojo’ noisy tap as hideous debt to lay at a bully.
Ex you, day. tap wrote a ‘D,’ a stay. Tenor is Sunday.
Arreides stain axe and Ron and ideas ‘ll kill you.

Moving through the material, I’m simultaneously surprised and not that I hadn’t heard of this poet before this book landed, making me wonder just how much material exists in the world by those otherwise-forgotten writers? We move so quickly to the next book and the next book that there are probably dozens of poets left behind: “only alive as long as in print,” to paraphrase a line by the (since late) Canadian poet Patrick Lane. So much literary history is unrecorded and overlooked, and this is a wonderfully vibrant collection, even through the dark elements of Melnick’s later work, as the collaborative “INTRODUCTION” writes:

In parallel with his life, Melnick’s poetry also yields  story, a compact one. Four books comprise his legacy: Eclogs (written 1967-1970), PCOET (mostly 1972), Men in Aïda (1983), and A Pin’s Fee (1987). As the dates of composition show, his years of creativity span a crucial two decades in the rise of queer community: his first book begun before Stonewall; his last written in the crisis years of AIDS. And each book reflects a truth of its moment, though in a manner entirely its own. In Eclogs, the beautiful façade of coded language preserves an experience it screens from view. PCOET yields to the joy of invention, creating a language all its own. Men in Aïda, the pinnacle of this span, is his epic: an act of gay worldbuilding, embracing the past and transforming it through homophonic translation. A Pin’s Fee, the shortest of the four, is anguished: its last word, “DEATH, “ repeating forty-five times. After this, nothing. For the rest of Melnick’s life, another thirty-five years, no other poetry would surface.


Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Maxine Chernoff, Light and Clay: New and Selected Poems


Roll over, Oscar Wilde. Meet Gertrude Stein
and the Little Sparrow. Meet Jim Morrison and

Chopin too. Deeper and deeper our travels
took us: there was Create, whose indoor toilets
were the first preserved. The tourists

from the cruise had sea legs, as Knossos listed
right or left. The Mexican economist hated
America’s presumptions, he confessed at dinner,
before the ping pong ball disappeared into the Aegean.

I thought Ship of Fools, how doomed
our journeys, felt comfort in moss roses curled
around a railing where men worked sums.
The castle from the Crusades, rehabbed by Mussolini:
palimpsest of wrong ideas: and no plot to save us. (“Zonal”)

I was curious to see a copy of Mill Valley, California poet and editor Maxine Chernoff’s latest, Light and Clay: New and Selected Poems (Cheshire MA: MadHat Press, 2023), a collection that selects poems across six of her nineteen books of poetry—Among the Names (Apogee Press, 2005), The Turning (Apogee Press, 2007) [see my review of such here], To Be Read in the Dark (Omnidawn, 2011), Without (Shearsman Books, 2012) [see my review of such here], Here (Counterpath Press, 2014) [see my review of such here] and Camera (Subito Press, 2017) [see my review of such here]—as well as a healthy opening section of new poems. Focusing on her work with and through sonnets, sequences, extended lines and other lyric structures, Light and Clay exists as a counterpoint to her Under the Music: Collected Prose Poems (MadHat Press, 2019) [see my review of such here], and the two collections paired offer an interesting overview of Chernoff’s attention to poetic structure. “Love’s tender mercies clear the air,” she writes, to open the poem “Traced,” “Unhinging the gate to practiced longing. / Tied to life, you spill into water, deeper / Than any atmosphere.” Chernoff’s poems extend lines of thought across great distances, whether the line, the poem or as a sequence of pulled-apart sentences, offering a lyric that works to articulate and examine intellectual and physical space. Hers is a lyric, essentially, of seeing, and what she sees is illuminating. As the short poem “Granted” ends: “We stayed in bed for years / and took our cures patiently / from each other’s cups. / We read Bleak House and / stored our money in socks. / Nothing opened as we did.”

Whereas her prose poem selected opens with an introduction by Robert Archambeau, this collection exists without, which, as regular readers of this space are already fully aware, I consider a severe oversight for any selected or collected; it is important to place writer and writing within context, and offer why and how this collection was decided upon, let alone shaped. For example: did the author make the selections herself? What was the process of these books selected, and selected from, and not others? Either way, opening with the sixteen-part sonnet sequence, “Zonal,” the poems in the “new” section employ an increased complexity (compared to the other poems throughout), providing a layering of image, insight, craft and instability, finely-woven with deceptive ease. The shift across the body of her work, at least as presented in this two hundred page-plus volume, is intriguing, subtle and even clarifying. This is an incredible work by a severely underrated poet, sliding under the radar for more than enough time (a recent folio on her work did appear recently in Denver Quarterly, Vol 57 No. 4 (2023), edited by Lea Graham, although the issue itself doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere on their website).

You Took the Dare

To live here and there, as recluse
and as host. While everything exploded
and flames turned water red, you
suggested a menu and gave to
a proper cause. Nothing endured
the losses around you, the final note
that sounded past alarm. A cloudy
resemblance of what once sufficed came
to be known as grace as you listened
to grass growing, to a boy praying
near the great stone wall. Crisis after
crisis stacked up like planes in fog.
You counted moss-covered bricks near
the former factory, where, at sunset,
brown light flickered.
What else to do but live?

Monday, January 29, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Melia McClure

Melia McClure is the author of the novels All the World’s a Wonder and The Delphi Room. After a childhood spent dancing and acting, she has been seen on film, television, and the stage of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Favourite acting memories include a turn as Juliet in an abridged collage of Shakespeare’s classic and a role in the much-loved TV series Stargate Atlantis. Film and theatre along with visual art are the three muses that inspire her writing. They kindle her fascination with the book-to-film metamorphosis. Her fiction is a confluence of magic realism, black humour, and abnormal psychology, opening unexpected backroads to elements of the metaphysical. Melia is a graduate of The Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where she was born. She now divides her time between Canada and Europe.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The publication of my first book vindicated my conviction that I could do something unusual with the novel form and see this odd literary concoction enter the wider world. The Delphi Room mixes prosemuch of it in the form of an epistolary relationshipwith screenplay and is a nod to cinema. My most recent work, All the World’s a Wonder, is a hat-tip to the theatre and marries playscript with prose, some of the latter as diary entries and emails, but almost all as character monologues that speak directly to the audience. One of my aims with this book was to transform the novel into a stage performance, with the reader in the front row. A play within a novel.

The Delphi Room is a love story about two cinephiles trapped in adjacent rooms which they believe to be hell; it uses an insular setting to access the expansive internal realities of its characters. In contrast, All the World’s a Wonder traverses from Manhattan to Corfu, and from modern day to the Jazz Age; it likewise plunges into emotional abysses and psychological chasms, but through a broader scope of storytelling.  

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I’m an actor, and for me, fiction is a natural extension of performing. When I write, I’m channelling the characters the way an actor does, and for that reason my fiction is voice-driven and dialogue-rich.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I can be slow to commence and slow to proceed. My approach is careful and intuitive. I can also write scenes at a rapid pace once I’ve said to hell with it and stepped on stage, so to speak. I often have an opening scene in mind. Because I work by listening for direction from the characters, who frequently say surprising and inconveniently illogical things, I must make an epic pact of trust that what they say is leading somewhere, preferably not off a cliff. Although the editing process is invaluable, my early drafts look quite similar to the final result. Perhaps this is because I need to be loving the language and the voices and feel that the bones of the piece are strong to continue the journey.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I began my writing life with short fiction, but now most of my prose begins with the idea that what I’m writing will become a book. That said, a novel is constructed scene by scene, and because my work tends to spring from the perspective of a dramaturge, I venture forth with a focus on the dramatic microcosm and let the macrocosm take care of itself.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

My novels are written for live performance. Storytelling is an oral tradition. I love to put on my actor hat and share the work with an audience.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

When I began writing All the World’s a Wonder, I was musing on how one might go about bringing to literary life the mysticism and theatrics of the creative process, its devastation and exultation. My lens was on the artist as conduit, on the artistic impulse being dictated by deathless otherworldly characters.

All my work asks metaphysical questions, bends time and space while remaining rooted in realism, and probes the possibilities of the mind, love, and redemption.

Art is a call and response about the search for meaning. So, although the questions posed by a given work may be coloured by the details of the day, the answers we are striving toward are intemporal. An artist offers incomplete answers which are perhaps fragments of an ineffable completeness.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Art reminds us that what we refer to as reality is just one possibility plucked from an infinite spectrum of potentials. The writer opens the door to dimensions which are not already unveiled in the temporal world, and these dimensions would never be actualized here, were it not for the artist’s insistence on prying into shadowy corners.

It is through the stories we tell and the stories we read that the stories we live are revealed anew.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

A keen editor is the essential first audience member, and the editorial process is an extended dress rehearsal, to lean on theatre jargon. Is the performance playing to the back of the house? Will tomatoes be tossed?

Still, the process is delicate, and thus stepping into it involves a degree of trepidation. To feel protective of one’s creations is only natural; for the writer, a difficult balance of defensive vigilance and open-minded serenity is required.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (writing to acting to dance)? What do you see as the appeal?

Dance was an important part of my childhood and my introduction to performance. Acting also began early, as did making up stories and writing them down. Storytelling and self-expression were always essential, no matter what form they took. Writing and acting seem a natural pair to me, the internal and external versions of the same expressive imperative. With writing, I love that I can both become the characters as an actor doeseven though no one can see meand perch in the director’s chair, guiding the action.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Morning, when the mind has just journeyed back from the other side of elsewhere and life has yet to pounce from all angles, is preferred. Tea, reverie, write, celebrate wee victories.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Years ago, I began dabbling with paint. It is a way to experience the pure freedom and joy of creation without the pressure of striving to excel. The art of child’s play.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The scent of backstage, of a slant of spotlight streaming with dust.  

My parents gave me the chance to taste the stage early on. Their support is my talisman. Even when I was a very young child in a ballet recital, the scent of an old theatre and the warm smell of bright lights felt like a second home and meant both a deep connection to my family and to grand unknown realms, soon to be born.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Books are sensory experiences that come from other sensory experiences. Henry, a character in All the World’s a Wonder, is a violinist. I was inspired by the singular transporting sensation of a solo violinist playing Ravel. Anais, from the same novel, is passionate about cuisine, her culinary creations paying homage both to her Hungarian grandmother and to the beauty of Greece.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I will read the gamut from crime fiction to haiku to stage play. I am less concerned with my taste and more simply curious about the possible majesty of words and story. Many of the writers I’ve long lovedAlice Munro, to name a beloved iconhave a style very different from my own. If anything, I am drawn to what is far departed from my favoured stomping ground. I love reading stage plays as it feeds my fondness for dialogue. I adored The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh when I saw it on the stage and recently loved it again on the page.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel the Silk Road. When I think of storytelling as a spoken-word tradition, I think of a caravanserai full of traders bearing tales. The chronicles collected and shared along these fabled routes doubtless served as spiritual lamps for weary travellers in the cold firelight, and likely influenced the world of then and now in far more ways than we can imagine.

As both the traveller and the storyteller know, and in the words of André Breton, “…literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.”

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

The healing arts. Words can heal, but if not words, then herbs.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It is in writing the voices of others that I feel most myself.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I reread Lisa Moore’s short-story collection Open. A white napkin, marked with red lipstick and fallen to the ground, is a wounded dove. Arresting.

One of my treasured films is The Road Home, directed by Zhang Yimou. Simple, gentle, graceful, timeless.

20 - What are you currently working on?

There seem to be characters chattering in my ear, flinging themselves between Southeast Asia and New York, barking out another novel. Heaven forfend.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;