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I am posting this as a benchmark, not because I think I'm playing very well yet.  The idea would be post a video every month for a ye...

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

How are you feeling?

How am I feeling? I'm glad you asked.

Somewhere half way between ennui and spleen

The crust is rough and crumbly

On the inside is acid

You might picture a pie, then

taste it in your mind's tongue 

There is sweetness added to balance the tartness of the fruit

the salt of the crust

Somehow, though, I feel unbalanced

the flavors merely clash 

Monday, June 29, 2020

The Cast of Characters

I could think of my book as featuring a cast of characters.  Lorca himself, then 

Germaine Montero / Camarón / Silvestre Revueltas / Leonard Cohen / George Crumb

Then other minor characters, like critics whose words I quote. 

The personalities alone lend a certain interest to the story.  There is another character here, perhaps one of the more important ones. His perspective shapes the entire narrative; he is a quirky unreliable narrator who only emerges out of the shadows from time to time. 

Leonard Cohen - How to speak poetry (spoken)

Sunday, June 28, 2020


What is Lorca's own musical culture?  

Standard Western classical music from Bach to Debussy. The Falla / Debussy nexus. 

Specifically Spanish classical music, with emphasis on Andalusianism (Albéniz / Falla), but also doing back to cancionero traditions. 

Spanish folksongs and ballads. Some overlap here between cancionero poetry and folksongs. These folksongs are not all Andalusian, as is sometimes falsely stated. There is a pan-Iberian interest.   

Cante jondo. A subcategory of Andalusian "folklore," but a more specific tradition. 

The amount of overlap here means that we can't isolate these elements from one another. 

We think of setting poetry to music as the combination of two art forms, but this is not really the case. There is a musical substratum that is always in play. For example, if Schiller writes a poem in a stanza form also used in folksongs... 

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Absent Center

Flamenco music is the absent center in music inspired by Lorca. It is a strangely elusive target (to switch my metaphors around a bit.) Not even flamenco musicians want to set him to music as flamenco, but instead want to do something else with him. 

Really, the vernacular tradition of Spanish folksong is far more important than flamenco per se. That is just one part of it. 

Maybe part of the difficulty of writing about music is that the object of attention is so difficult to write about that most critics don't even conceptualize the nature of the problem itself. For me, one place to start is in Edwin Denby's dance criticism. Denby cuts through a lot of the bullshit just by writing about what he is actually seeing on the stage. That seems a good place to start, with a thick description of what is observable. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


I had the students in the workshop bring in examples of good prose. They ended up giving me almost random paragraphs of standard academic prose, without any special distinction, and some of them even badly written or just dull. I don't see how they could aspire to write well if they don't even have a concept of style at all. I would say it's strange, but it isn't really.  

Monday, June 22, 2020

Documentary evidence


In Germaine Montero's Spanish albums, flamenco guitar appears only behind her declamations of poetry, never behind her singing of songs. Her accompaniment is always a small chamber orchestra. In the Spanish folksong albums, there are separate guitar tracks with no singing or reciting at all.  


The songs she sings are not flamenco, and she is not a flamenco singer. But it seems that we must have flamenco on a Spanish album, so the solution is to put it separately.  

You can recite poetry with a flamenco background. That is like reciting "beat" poetry to jazz. The music functions as a marker of cultural ambience. It is not really a setting of Lorca to music.  

Paperback books

I got a request from a publisher to review a book proposal.  They offered me 2 paperback books as compensation, three books if I got it done in two weeks. I suspect they will get a lot of refusals, unless you really want to do a lot of uncompensated labor.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Four books

I have four unpublished poetry manuscripts.  Mayhew's Mood, Pristine, The Dreams of my Youth, Cardboard Sky. 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

We got this from our Senate Presidents

"Embattled faculty colleagues:


We write at this late hour disappointed, disheartened, and frustrated. After what we perceived as genuine progress toward the ideal of shared and collaborative governance, after what we hoped were strides toward building trust among the faculty and the administration, and after being assured a seat at the table,  we were taken aback to learn—almost as you did—the scope and nature of pending salary cuts. ​

You have already spoken clearly to us: You feel this is outrageous and unfair. You think the rationale of the salary cuts is neither apparent nor equitable. You are being asked to risk your health for the financial well-being of the university. You are being asked to put forth extraordinary and uncompensated effort to redesign and rethink and redevelop your courses. At a minimum, you should have been fully consulted before you were asked to add a severe pay cut to your already great sacrifices for the university. 


We are acting fast to respond properly to this development, we will be heard, and we hope to count on your continued trust and support."



I thought my poems might be like Richard Brautigan's. 

I hadn't read them for years so I didn't remember them well.

I remembered them as short, funny, and a bit dumb at times

Like mine are. Maybe he influenced me without me thinking about it?

I went to read some, and my memory was right on. 

But they aren't all that similar to what I'm doing.  

I don't have to change my style to avoid that comparison.  

New York School

I began as a fan of Frank O'Hara. I read through his collected poetry many times, going to school with him.  I read everyone that he had read, like Flann O'Brien, inventing that method of reading backwards from a favorite writer. (I didn't invent it in an absolute sense, but I came up with the idea on my own.) Of course, I was also reading Ashbery, and doing a similar thing with him. 

But Kenneth Koch was the poet that I felt I could actually imitate myself. When I tried to write in a New York school, it came off too much like Creeley, but that is another story.  

Then as a young professor, I went to Schuyler, who didn't come through clearly in anthologies before that time. I went to school with Schuyler after already being immersed in the other 3. Then I extended it to Barbara Guest, the fourth of the big four. I spent a lot of time there, too. 

Of course, there is Ted Berrigan. But I like Alice Notley better. Their two sons are good poets. Eileen Myles, Joseph Ceravolo, are other poets I think are among the best. And Bernadette Mayer. Then came my friendship with David Shapiro, as brilliant as the rest of them but with an added element, for me. Each of these experiences meant "going to school" with a poet for a long time.  I almost forgot Ron Padgett, who gave me permission to not try to write the "good poem" all the time. Baraka, who started out with the New York group, too. 

So many different styles and personalities, in what we call the New York School.  There is no common element, except that it's good poetry and not boring. But what makes it seem good to me is its exuberant avant-garde spirit, that is not geared to scoring avant-garde points in a facile way. 

Then you could quadruple that with the other poet that aren't "New York." 

Concert & Random Notes

I finally got around to asking my cousin and the other director of the New York Festival of Song for the recording of their Lorca concert last Spring. How different this Spring has been from the last one!  I thought I would take the day off from work, but listening to an hour 1/2 concert and taking notes is kind of like "work." I also wrote a silly poem about making and eating breakfast.  That is "work" too.

I haven't been to live concert since last fall, probably.


I've become a big fan of art song since I began this project. As with everything else, there are mediocre ones, too. I don't even know enough to tell the difference, always, so I have to rely on instincts.


On facebook, I corrected someone who posted a fake quote by Unamuno. "Racism is cured by reading," etc... How someone could think Unamuno said that is beyond me. The word racism wasn't even in use in Spanish in this period. The original quote was something different, and by Pío Baroja not Unamuno, who probably was racist himself (big surprise). The urge to cite authorities for what we think is too strong, I suppose. It reminds me a bit of attributing your own poems of a contemporary American to Hafez.  You could play around with it a bit, I guess. 

The idea that racism and fascism could be cured by reading or traveling is absurd on the face of it. Didn't slave traders travel? Didn't writers become fascists? If reading and traveling were antidotes to bad political attitudes...  

I do this, I do that

I pour water into a coffee cup, then dump this water into goose neck kettle

I turn it on

I begin to "write" this poem in my head

it will be one of my very best 

I put a paper filter into a ceramic coffee making thing, scoop two scoops of coffee into the filter

place the thing on top of the same cup I have used to measure the water

I wash a pan, put it on the stove, turn on the stove, put a little olive oil in the pan

The kettle turns itself off automatically, I pour a little over the coffee grounds in the filter

I place my hand over the pan to see if it is hot enough yet, it is not

I pour some more water over the coffee

I keep mental track of what I am doing so that I can continue to "write" the poem

I get an egg out of the refrigerator--the pan is hot enough now

I crack the egg and put it in the pan to cook 

I pour the last of the water over the coffee

I re-heat a previously cooked potato in the same pan with the egg

I season the food in the pan and flip over the egg

I throw the coffee filter filled with grounds into the trash

I put the egg on a plate, brown the potato a few second more

I get out some pico de gallo I made two days before

and put it on the potato and egg on my plate

I eat breakfast while drinking the coffee 

Now, halfway through breakfast,  I really do "write" this poem, 

not in longhand but by typing it out on the computer

finishing around the same time as I am done with my coffee

or slightly before

Friday, June 19, 2020

Deep Song

For You

For you I would eat the cold ashes of regret; in fact, I've done so already.

For you I would enlist in armed regiments, desert, turn myself in, and serve time in the brig eating that thin gruel.

But you would not have me do this; your only wish for me is contentment and ease.

For you I would reverse time to meet you earlier in my life

The Flowers Die Of Love



 Today, the most significant poetry, though not perhaps the best by older standards, is no longer created for the printed page. As in the days before the city and the alphabet, poetry has become once again an art of direct communication, one person speaking or singing directly to others. Along with this change has come, in the words of the poems themselves, a constant, relentless, thoroughgoing criticism of all the values of industrial, commercial civilization. Poetry today is people poetry as it was in tribal society and it performs the same function in a worldwide counterculture. It is the most important single factor in the unity of that counterculture and takes the place of ideologies and constitutions, even of religious principles. As such those whose lives are identified past recall with the older dominant culture certainly are justified in seeing it as profoundly subversive. Where is this poetry? It is in the lyrics of rock singers, protest singers, folk singers, and the singers of gathering places like the French cafés chantants now spread all over the world.

Thursday, June 18, 2020


I continue to work through La madre de Frankenstein. No book can be all bad, so I found some nice memorable details.  A little girl is given her first fried egg and her grandmother teaches her how to eat it. They have chickens, but the chickens belong to the nuns who run the insane asylum, so the egg is technically stolen, since the grandfather is just the gardener.  

The set pieces of Franqista ideology are tired and predictable. The narrator, Velázquez is too good to be true. When another psychiatrist at the asylum comes out of the closet, to him Dr. V. just reacts in a blasé way, as though the characters lived in 2020. There is no narrative tension if the main character just blandly reflects the 2020 values of the author. Wouldn't someone in 1953 just have a few retrograde tendencies? 

The physical description of the characters are weird. People just do not look at each other in that way in real life; it's more of a parody of 19th century realist description. 

The main character is bland. He doesn't actually want anything, except to drug his patients with the latest psychotropic drug. I'm sure he'll end up being closer to Aurora, because the novel has been telegraphing this for hundreds of pages. 


Then I read where the narrator gets engaged to a Jewish woman for whom he feels no physical attraction, and is in fact repulsed by the semitic curve of her nose. WTF?  


I wouldn't be a good "generalist." The reason is that when I get deeply into a subject, I realize my earlier ideas were mostly wrong. This is deeply humbling, but in a good way.

As a consequence, I am most probably wrong about things that I haven't investigated in more depth. Pretending to know about a lot of things is not for me, because I have enough experience to know when I am likely to be ignorant, which is the majority of the time.

Socratic ignorance, where you start off by presuming you don't know anything, is the only intellectually honest position to take. Depth in scholarship is the goal, but you must start out with the depth of ignorance. Simply not knowing in advance what you might find.  It can't be faked ignorance, where you pretend you don't know but you actually have a dogmatic position.

In my facebook group people were debating whether Spain was a "slave society." I didn't know much about this, but people provided some references that schooled me a bit on the issue. Some Spaniards in the group, one in particular, got defensive. But if you simply think that the issue is slave labor in peninsular Spain, then I think you are wrong. Spain was an empire, and as such began to importation of Africans into the New World, and also enslaved indigenous people. So if Spain held Cuba as a colony, and Cuba had slaves, then Spain is a society based on slavery, to the exact extent that it drew wealth from this source. Spain had abolitionists too, many of them the women writers of the romantic period. This is also good to know. It wouldn't have had abolitionists if it wasn't a society based on slavery to some extent.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Borges Paradox

Borges was an avant-garde writer at one point. In Spanish-language poetry, the avant-garde itself tended to be a bit mediocre. It was creacionismo and ultraísmo, based on simplistic ideas about the poetic image. The idea was to invent new metaphors. Of course, Vallejo would be able to make good use of the avant-garde, and the Neruda of the Residencias was influenced by surrealism. But ultraísmo never rose to that level, in poets like Gerardo Diego.

Then Borges renounced the avant-garde. He thought that you couldn't invent new metaphors. The only valid ones are those that were universal. He began writing a lot of sonnets instead of the free verse of Fervor de Buenos Aires.

But in his prose, both his short essays and his stories, he became something else: an avant-garde writer of a different sort, in a way more imaginative than the simple search for new poetic images. He was a hero for the postmodernists and poststructuralists. He is an important translation theorist as well.

But at the same time, he never stopped being the conservative poet who had rejected the avant-garde. He wasn't two separate writers, but a single one. All the Argentine costumbrismo and the universal cosmopolitanism seemed coherent, somehow. The way for him to become one of the most original writers of all time was to embrace a theory that denies spurious notions of originality.

That is why readings of "Pierre Menard" are wrong. In actuality, the two identical texts from Cervantes are indeed identical.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

La madre de Frankenstein

I don't read much fiction. I am highly intolerant of middlebrow cardboard realism. That is not a technical term in literary criticism, but it is what I call novels that are plot / theme driven, with weak writing and characterization, and hundreds of pages of it to slog through. So I read 17% of a longish novel by Almudena Grandes, La madre de Frankenstein. I got a negative recommendation about it from a blogger in my own field, known as Clarissa, so I thought I would see if it was as bad as promised.  I'm reading it on a kindle device, which I rarely do. Forcing yourself to suffer through something really bad is useful, because you have to examine your own prejudices once in a while.

Of course, you could think of this as picking on low-hanging fruit, but Grandes publishes novel after novel with respected publishers.

AG is married to Luis GM, a Spanish poet whose work I think is mediocre. He is not fond of me either.  I've never met her, but I am prejudiced against her simply because of this connection. She dedicates the novel to him. She has a Galdosian reference, in the form of a poem by Cernuda about Galdós, as the epigraph. The device of the young intellectual up against forces of reaction is stolen from Galdos's Doña Perfecta. There is a scene where the young intellectual, a psychiatrist named Velázquez, puts his foot in his mouth in an encounter with a priest, that makes you think of Pepe Rey. But Almudena is no Galdós.

I've read every single novel by Galdós, except a few of the episodes nacionales in the fourth and fifth series. This is thousands of pages of reading. Some of them I've read several times; I've taught him in classes too and was even married to a Galdosista, so I know of what I speak.

The writing is repetitious and banal (in Grandes). The effort to achieve poetic effects is ludicrous. The narrator returns  to Spain and sees his sister for the first time in many years. He is struck by her beauty and describes her as not merely pretty, but beautiful in the way reserved for truly happy people. Her beauty radiates in her teeth and hair from the deepest interior to the furthest extremities of her body. She is both skinnier and fatter than he expected, with the new fat in all the right places. They embrace... Then the sister disappears for hundreds of pages. It's not that I wanted an incest plot, but this is just weird as narrative technique.

The earnest moralizing is not to be believed. It is a novela de tesis in the Galdosian sense. One target of critique seems to be eugenics. We are told numerous times in the first hundred pages that "the ends don't justify the means." The other target is Franco's Spain. We get a nice parody of Francoist ideology, but it's not something we don't already know if we've read Delibes novels like La sombra del ciprés es alargada or Cinco horas con Mario. The worst part is that my kindle (iPad) underlines passages that other readers have highlighted, and these tend to be the set pieces of ideological preaching.  At one point, it is pointed out that the insane asylum where the novel takes place is a microcosm of the Francoist society.  Well duh!!!

The characters are poorly drawn. The novel is constantly telling and not showing. We get those "this was the most decisive moment of my life" statements that savvier narrators might present more subtly.

Nothing rings true to me. It is pure cardboard sky. The narrative premise has enormous potential, as Clarissa points out, but the novel is going nowhere (so far). I haven't even gotten to the anti-Semitic parts she refers to...

... to be continued.

Ethics of translation

I was accused of being vitriolic in my criticism of Bly's translations. I was. Why do I get angry about bad translations, and is my anger justified?

I learned yesterday that one of the main translators of Hafez just makes up the poems. He doesn't even translate. It's all apocryphal.  So the pseudo-mystical claptrap in your Instagram account or your wedding vows or tattooed on your forearm is just some bullshit dreamed up by a middle-aged white guy with a beard in the contemporary US.  I don't believe in shunning people for their writing, but this is orientalism at its worst. There oughta be a law. There's no copyright that applies, and its not even plagiarism, but something possibly even worse. This is even worse than what Kent Johnson would do.

Then, the most popular Rumi translator, Coleman Barks, doesn't make the stuff up, but pretty much rids it of its Islamic content. He was first given a copy of Rumi by .... Robt. Bly. Neither Barks nor Ladinsky knows any Persian. You know, you can study a language if you are interested. It is not impossible to learn Persian. If I were going to devote my entire career to translating a poet, I would want to learn something about the poet, the original language, culture, or religion.

So yes, I will defend my right to criticize Bly. The guy who accuses me of criticizing Bly too harshly does not actually defend the translations to show me I am wrong. Bly once translated the word "quimera" [chimera] in a Machado poem as "mythological beast." It is as though he looked up the word in a dictionary and found the definition "a mythological beast" and put it in his translation without thinking about it too much.

Monday, June 15, 2020

I don't know where to start

Tuba Mirum Fanfare - Verdi

Here's Julia playing a trumpet fanfare with some other players.

Alice Coltrane Prema on Marian McPartland Piano Jazz

My Aesthetic

First idea is that you have to have an aesthetic, and that it has to be yours (not somebody else's). It will overlap with other people's to a great extent, because we are alive at the same time and have some of the same formative influences. There are also aesthetic "universals," like symmetry. Now you might say that you like asymmetry better. That is fine too, but then you are judging things along the same axis (symmetry vs. asymmetry). 

Second idea: you have the power and responsibility to define it for yourself, so that other people's opinion cease to matter. Once again, it will matter, because we are alive at the same time and share formative influences. But this power is an absolute one. So if I were reading someone's poem I would point out what their aesthetic is, and ask them if that's what they are going after. 

Third idea: it is not a point on a line, but a spectrum of possibilities. It is not an unchanging essence, but something that can shift along this spectrum. It can expand. Poetry for me is imaginative freedom infused with awe at existence itself, so it doesn't make sense to have an aesthetic that just sits there inertly.  

Fourth idea: intention. You have to mean it. You have to commit to doing it and then doing it right, and the aesthetic intention has to be palpable in the poem. I probably haven't been able to do this myself. If I had, then I would be a great poet. 

My particular aesthetic is this: I start with imagism. So concrete images and a certain free verse musicality; no wasted words. That gets you about 60% of where you want to be, since that is a lot of people's implicit notion of conventionally good poetry. Then the rest of it is personality. There has to be something more, like wit, or ecstasy, an element of surprise or of the unexpected, or an enigmatic quality. My particular technique is to begin somewhere and try to make each line the logical continuation of what went before, but also surprising in some way. 

So it's not surprising that one of my favorites is Joseph Ceravolo. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Rewrite this poem

Rewrite this poem using your own favorite words
In place of my girlfriend's name, put in your own lover's

It ought to be easy
You know what you like better than I do

Why are you reading mine instead of your own anyway?
Nobody can write your own better than you. 

For You

For you I'd give up smelling salts and chapstick

For you, I'd give up recycling and statistics

For you, I'd give up arugula, spare tires

a month's rent, shaving soap

For you, I renounce Neruda and salt,

icicles, strawberries, and even more more salt

If necessary, I'd abjure and disavow

whatever else I love or don't love

What is the temperature?

What is the temperature of love?
What is the temperature of death?

We know the temperature of ice,
not so much the temperature of sand.

If we ask, what is the temperature?
We are talking about the temperature of the air.

The temperature of a book never changes that much--
Not like metal, colder than ice and hotter than flames.

I'm speaking literally here.
We know that temperature is a metaphor for so much else.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Houllebeq on Prévert

Cʼest une excellente occasion de sʼinterroger pourquoi la poésie de Jacques Prévert est-elle si médiocre, à tel point quʼon éprouve parfois une sorte de honte à la lire ? Lʼexplication classique (parce que son écriture « manque de rigueur ») est tout à fait fausse ; à travers ses jeux de mots, son rythme léger et limpide, Prévert exprime en réalité parfaitement sa conception du monde. La forme est cohérente avec le fond, ce qui est bien le maximum quʼon puisse exiger dʼune forme. Dʼailleurs quand un poète sʼimmerge à ce point dans la vie, dans la vie réelle de son époque, ce serait lui faire injure que de le juger suivant des critères purement stylistiques. Si Prévert écrit, cʼest quʼil a quelque chose à dire ; cʼest tout à son honneur. Malheureusement, ce quʼil a à dire est dʼune stupidité sans bornes ; on en a parfois la nausée. Il y a de jolies filles nues, des bourgeois qui saignent comme des cochons quand on les égorge. Les enfants sont dʼune immoralité sympathique, les voyous sont séduisants et virils, les jolies filles nues donnent leur corps aux voyous ; les bourgeois sont vieux, obèses, impuissants, décorés de la Légion dʼhonneur et leurs femmes sont frigides ; les curés sont de répugnantes vieilles chenilles qui ont inventé le péché pour nous empêcher de vivre. On connaît tout cela ; on peut préférer Baudelaire. […] Lʼintelligence nʼaide en rien à écrire de bons poèmes ; elle peut cependant éviter dʼen écrire de mauvais. Si Jacques Prévert est un mauvais poète cʼest avant tout parce que sa vision du monde est plate, superficielle et fausse. Elle était déjà fausse de son temps ; aujourdʼhui sa nullité apparaît avec éclat, à tel point que lʼœuvre entière semble le développement dʼun gigantesque cliché. Sur le plan philosophique et politique, Jacques Prévert est avant tout un libertaire ; cʼest-à-dire, fondamentalement, un imbécile.

I've always found this a bit much, ever since I read a Spanish translation in La alegría de los náufragos several years ago. Prévert may be the French Rod McKuen, or something close to that, but Houllebeq, whose name I can never spell for some reason, is just an asshole.  

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Reverse Jealousy

A few times, someone else has written a book after me, on the same subject, that I don't consider as good as mine. I could feel envy if someone wrote a book on the same thing that is better. I don't really understand, though, what to call this feeling. I have no desire to write a book about something unless I feel that it is going to be the very best book on the subject.  Needless to say, I am biased in favor of my own work and I think my ideas are correct, but it is not even that. If a smart person like Ignacio Infante disagreed with me, I don't really care. Maybe he might be correct. If a dumber person does, or does something similar to what I've done but not nearly as interesting, then I almost feel I should "pull rank."

If people do excellent work, I don't feel jealous. I feel good for the field. With work I don't think is good, I feel bad for the field as well as for myself if they cite me but without understanding. I don't feel as personally insulted as I used to, particularly by a guy who would say he got an idea from me, and then not cite me for it.

I used to get quite angry when I read positive reviews of bad books. Now I just shrug my shoulders.

Sunday, June 7, 2020


Is it round, square?
Long? Short?
Where do I feel it:
In gut? In toe?

Does it come and stay
Or come and go?

What is its purpose?
What is its cause?
Will I feel it again?
Undoubtedly so.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

New Workshop

I decided to give my zoom workshop on the scholarly article only for our grad students and in Spanish.

My July workshop will be "Creativity in Scholarship." It will be open to "the public" and I'll advertise it on facebook. The price will be whatever you want to pay, donated to your local food bank or similar org. I will limit participants to 15 and donate $20 per participant myself as well.

Hating your own playing

I noticed that I was starting to dislike my own piano playing. I took a few days off, because hating your own playing doesn't make you play better. Even if the flaws you perceive are actually there, practicing out of that place does not help at all. I needed to stop and regroup for a few days.


Irrational causes of hating my own playing: I had accidentally set the dynamic control so that that I could not control dynamics any more. I played without noticing it, but finally it dawned on me. Once I restored the setting I like, it automatically sounded better.

Hearing people play better than me. Irrational because of course pro players will be better than me. I have no right to expect anything different. I should be inspired rather than intimidated.

Not thinking I have improved enough; not giving myself credit for improvement.

You can argue against the causes of depression, but not against the feeling itself. That is simply real.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

More on the subject

The creative mind is capable of change. You don't just decide what you think at the outset and then go out and prove it. Instead, you start off with an idea and see if it works.  If it doesn't, modify it, change it, reject it.

As you read, certain ideas will occur to you. You must learn to listen to them as they come up, distinguishing between what is interesting and what is not.

As I read poetry, I cannot not have ideas.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Notes on Creativity in Scholarship: First set of Exercises

1) Extravagant interpretation. Come up with an extravagant or exaggerated interpretation of a text. You won't be using it directly, but perhaps there is some seed in this interpretation that is suggestive of something else. Don't worry about being wrong in this stage, since the point is to be a bit "wrong."

2) Uncreative interpretations. Make a list of "standard interpretations." That is, way in which people habitually interpret certain texts. This would be like Flaubert's dictionary of received ideas. Here the idea is not to interpret texts creatively, but to explore what the standard interpretations are.  Once you get a feel for those, then you know what you are up against.  These interpretations aren't necessarily wrong, but they have become a bit stale.

3) Clichés. Along a similar line, think of clichés of literary criticism, like the idea that there is "anxiety" about something and texts are symptomatic of this anxiety. Is there a way of making something creative out of this, or some other, cliché? Invent your own cliché. What if the common method of interpreting were astrological. What would result in overturning this habit.

4) Comparison. Compare two texts that don't seem to have anything in common. The furthest apart they [seemingly] are, the better.

5) Make up your own. Make up your own exercise.  Make sure it doesn't duplicate one of mine. That would be uncreative.

Notes on Creativity in Scholarship: Intro

I. We can divide things we do into scholarly and creative projects. So a poem, film, or music score would be creative, and the analysis of any of these things would be critical or scholarly.  This is simply a classification, though. An uncreative, derivative film, or an inept play, would still be creative in this classification, just as bad scholarship might still be classified as scholarship.

II. So creativity in scholarship--what is it, exactly? My first idea is that it might be the kind of insight into the creative work that a creator might have. So a musical creator might have insight into the work by virtue of being a composer, that the mere analyst does not have. This does not make the scholarship necessarily creative in its insights. It would depend on whether the composer knew how to formulate insights in this way. Maybe yes, maybe no.  Just being a creative writer doesn't make you a creative thinker. It would depend on the quality of your thought. Still, a skilled practitiioner would now certain things.

III. My second idea is that we know uncreative scholarship when we see it. We call it "plodding. "It belabors obvious points; analyzes in detail with no sense of purpose; provides a lot of information without telling us why it is meaningful; fails to follow up on potentially more interesting points; we read it and don't learn very much of interest. From this sort of unimaginative practice, we can deduce what we mean by creativity.

[IV. But there is another kind of scholarship that tries to be creative, but seems creative in the wrong way (to me!). It is not dull or plodding; it is flashy. It has extravagant interpretations, a shimmering critical metalanguage. It does have a certain excitement about it, but we won't necessarily accept its conclusions and interpretations. It doesn't seem rooted in deep understanding, but in a kind of superficial use of exciting-sounding buzzwords.]

V. So we can reverse the definition of the "uncreative" without falling into the trap of being creative in the wrong ways. Instead of belaboring the obvious, it uses obvious points to set up the more interesting ones; it distinguishes between information and insight; the critic has a nose for what my be interesting and pursues it. He or she would make connections among things that are ordinarily seen as disconnected, or distinguish between things that are falsely seen as the same things, question arbitrary classifications. The originality is based on mastery of the field, and not on bullshit.

VI.  I don't know how to teach this. The student is or is not creative?  But perhaps I could have a series of exercises on scholarly creativity.

Stay tuned...


I listened to a four CD box set of Germaine Montero yesterday. Not just the Lorca / Spanish folksong parts of the CDs. This particular set does not include all the Lorca material she did. I got an even better sense of her performance style and the range of literary and musical traditions with which she engages. She goes back to perform songwriters of other centuries, putting me in touch with traditions I did not know about.

I guess the upshot here is that, instead of viewing declamation as a slightly corny and mostly irrelevant aspect, I can consider it as part of the music.

People like Charles Bernstein and his collaborators on Close Listening do not pay a lot of attention to music per se, even though their subject is poetry as "performed word." But what if declamation and singing were simply two forms of performance? There are musical style, in fact, that are more declamatory: sprechstimme, recitative... A composer can write the instruction parlando in the score. These chanting, declaiming styles are common in Lorca adaptations.

Think of Zukofksy: Lower limit speech / Upper limit music. So poetry can be speech, but not merely speech, and music, but also "speaking music."

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Rescuing Lorca from the folkloric

There is one view of Lorca that I've found sometimes. The person will dismiss Lorca as a "folkloric poet." The more sophisticated version of this is to divide Lorca into two. The good Lorca is the surrealist, the avant-garde artist. The bad Lorca is ... the folkloric... and sometimes the musical Lorca.

(A third position is to like Lorca because he is folkloric.)

But studying Lorca and music, I can't exactly make that separation. Musicians gravitate toward him because of his investment in anonymous lyric traditions. So the sophistication of the approach is in the adaptation of folklore to something that, by definition, cannot be folklore any more. And that is precisely what Lorca himself did.


Stephen Fredman's new book on "transactional" poetry has come out. I think it's a good word for the way in which poetry reaches out of itself to engage with other things. On the first page of his intro he talks about how the poets he knows are so intellectually capacious and engaged. It's really refreshing to overturn the idea of poetry as an art of mere navel-gazing.

I've thought of teaching as transactional in this sense: you don't lecture the students, but engage. You can't just say what you had planned to say, because the faces looking at you make you change your plans. Their comments and questions influence you. This might be a better model than adaptation: the idea that you take an original work and adapt it, so the critic has to study the two things in contrast to each other. That works for a lot of things, like movie adaptations of novels, translations, song settings, parodies... But to bring the transactional into it would emphasize the dynamic quality of the interchange.

What Fredman ways is true of some poets; I know of others who don't seem that way to me at all. I'm not sure it lines up with the avant-garde or non avant-garde division, exactly, though Fredman is in the avant-garde camp. He begins the book with a contrast between Duncan and Antin, and brings Creeley in quickly too. I suspect even the poets whose work I find boring have a lot of interesting intellectual passions.

The Project Shifts Shape

I just ordered a book today that has actual musical scores from Lorca's plays. WTF!  I did not know about this until today. Of course, I should be the expert in this stuff by now, but no.

People remembered the music wrote and wrote it down. They aren't written down by Lorca himself.

Now I realize what Germaine Montero is singing is Lorca's own music. So this explains somewhat why Lorca became such a musical figure. It's not just the poems, but the plays. Specifically, the song from the plays. Lorca meant these songs to be sung, and composed (or adapted) the music for them.

So now, there are two factors I had known about but underestimated by a country mile: Lorca as composer / Lorca as playwright. Now a lot of things are making more sense. My original orientation was toward music other people wrote, and toward settings of the lyric poems more than the plays.

This does not change anything I've already written, it just makes the book more rounded and complete.


"Act of God" is a term for insurance

not theology

or is it?

Monday, June 1, 2020

Lying and Statistics

 We estimate an overall mortality rate of about 1.8 per 100,000 for men between the ages of 25 y and 29 y. This ranks police use of force as one of the leading causes of death for young men. Between these ages, police violence trails accidents (which include drug overdoses, motor vehicle traffic deaths, and other accidental fatalities) at 76.6 deaths per 100,000, suicide (26.7 deaths per 100,000), other homicides (22.0 deaths per 100,000), heart disease (7.0 deaths per 100,000), and cancer (6.3 deaths per 100,000) as a leading cause of death.

So what the hell? What does "one of the leading causes" mean here? It is ten times less than "other homicides." More than one third less than heart disease.  Who the hell dies of heart disease before they are 29? If I gave you a chart with these numbers:







What would you think of the most significant numbers here? I would be more worried about the 3 leading causes.

Not by Lorca

I've become more interested in the Canciones españolas antiguas.  We know they aren't Lorca's own creations, but that doesn't make them less interesting, I've decided. First I was not interested at all, but there are a few enigmas here. People aren't very careful about the way they talk about them or refer to them.

1) They aren't exclusively Andalusian. Lorca was interested in collecting songs from the entire peninsula.  That's why he wrote song-like poems in Galician, etc... Some are Andalusian, but some are not.

2) They are diverse in their style; heterogeneous in their historical origins. They aren't all from one century.  There are songs and ballads. Yet performance styles tend to homogenize them, in the sense that a classical singer will do them all as art songs, or a flamenco singer as all flamenco.  In fact, they lend themselves to many treatments of diverse sorts. Folk songs are not all created equal. This is not even considering the texts...

3) La Argentinita doesn't sing them in a "folkloric" or flamenco style. We read sometimes that she was a flamenco singer. Not true.  She has an operatic-style voice. We can't go back and listen to her for any kind of "authenticity." This is just once style among many. Lorca plays piano behind them and not guitar, so they belong to a kind of parlor music.

4) I'm still trying to figure out when La Tarara got added to them? And it is often said that there were 5 records, but shouldn't there be 6, with 12 songs total?  I'm embarrassed to ask a real Lorca scholar the answer to this question, but it's hard to do research with the library closed.  

5) The arrangements were not written down by Lorca, but transcribed.

6) Blackburn translates some was though they were Lorca poems, and that practice is continued when performers and composers mix Lorca's own poems with the poems he collected.

etc... I think I almost have enough for an article.