New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area. This month's installment guest-written by Evan Karp.
"The San Francisco Bay Area can boast of having both many great poets and many mediocre poets." Thus begins the unusual collaboration between poets Juliana Spahr and David Buuck, An Army of Lovers, which vaguely resembles both a novel and a lyrical meditation on the nature of art and civic responsibility.
There are so many factions of creative writing here that it sometimes seems each poet is a different form of poetics. Thus when any two people say "the Bay Area literary scene" they are almost definitely talking about two different things. Spahr and Buuck, who both teach at Mills College and are each respectively accomplished (if not adored) experimental artists, are as qualified as anyone to discuss what distinguishes a "great poet" from a "mediocre poet" -- should that ever be their goal.
The book's first sentence is quite misleading, though, as it may contain Army's only dichotomy; often reading like a lyric poem, much of the book is a sprawling and all-inclusive list of overlapping realities, refusing to call any one thing "as it is." For example, an artist is trying to make "a sound piece using found materials, a piece that might take all that she could know and feel about a military prison in another country and the bodies inside it, their movements and actions and sounds, and then somehow shape this into music, or protest, or she did not know what":
She wasn't sure what she wanted this new composition to sound like, what she wanted it to do. But she knew what she didn't want. She didn't want it to be easy to dance to or to be something to march to or to simply be parsed out in recognizable phrygian or lydian or dorian or locrian or aeloian modes. She didn't want it to reference endangered birds or privatized drops of water or other things that just made you feel sad. She didn't want it to be spare and lyrical or melodic and rich. She wanted it to be not easy to listen to but also not so hard to listen to that you'd just want to shut it off or want to just read the liner notes and nod your head to the implications therein, nodding as if to a beat, thinking the right proper political thoughts in the head but not also the messy ugly things that stir in the belly or resonate in the inner cavities of a right proper North American body faced with the implications.
The artist in question is the subject of the second of five vignettes, who suffers an incurably infected tick bite that begins to take on a life of its own. She tries to channel her fever into the creation of art, ignoring the growth as long as possible and finally giving in to it -- trying to give language to it, to let it speak for itself. As her doctor says:
I cannot cure you. No one can cure you. I can modulate your fever, but what is there inside you will still come; it's growing inside you, it's the you that's not you that's coming. And you can let it suck the life out of you or you can find in it fuel for action.
The book offers many ways of approaching the age-old questions What makes something art and What makes someone a decent citizen, as well as (if not primarily) exploring the ways in which the answers to these questions might intersect. More impressively, it does so without being didactic and yet without being obscure, as so many efforts at high-concept art tend to be.
Honestly, I just want to barrage you with big block quotes from passages selected at random (you can read a long climactic passage here). The book is so pleasant to read it's almost easy to forget the import of its queries, despite the fact that you may find yourself dogearing half of its pages. The result is what any good book should hope for: it leaves the reader with a feeling of wanting to engage, to become more involved, however that might be possible. The energy and honesty with which Spahr and Buuck have asked themselves the above questions permeate every page of this book, and are every bit as infectious as the pustule in section two.
Despite its charm and, well... poetry, An Army of Lovers is a dangerous book. To those creating, or interested in creating, it is an artful challenge -- one that includes in its confrontation a confronting of the confronters, which can therefore only be well-met. The finale is anthemic, the kind of swollen sense of pluralized subjectivity that was so manifest during Occupy and emerges, from time to time, when so properly summoned. Lawrence Ferlinghetti once said of Ginsberg's poem "Howl" that "the world had been waiting for this poem, for this apocalyptic message to be articulated. It was in the air, waiting to be captured in speech." The statement suggests maybe someone else would have eventually uttered the "message," though it also implies a world in which it never gets stated. The characters in An Army of Lovers might forever fluctuate between the belief that poetry is everything and the belief that poetry is not enough, and perhaps nothing, but they are forever trying to utter something of meaning -- hopelessly, even, at times, blindly; they may be unable to imagine a world that cares, but that won't stop them from trying to create a world that cares.
With so many in the Bay Area approaching these questions from different vantages, and with various degrees of education and commitment, An Army of Lovers represents the strivings of a sample population that arguably does not exist anywhere else. In scope, it includes all artists trying to transcend a capitalist society, to create poetry at a time when poetry does not seem to have much large-scale significance. But it's in the air here, and the authors have done a singular job capturing what might serve as a clarion call for anyone seeking radical transformation.
You can read the authors discuss the book in brief here and here, and even listen to them reading from the book. If you do the above and absolutely have to read the book but can't afford to purchase a copy, go on in to City Lights and read the whole thing; no one will stop you.
By Juliana Spahr and David Buuck
(City Lights; 144 pages; $13.95)