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Posts Tagged ‘dada’

Because I’m writing. Or rather, I’m rearranging.

Not editing, mind you, and they’re not even my own words. And to top it all off I’m not even getting paid for it.

To the right there you’ll notice a little badge for a thing called the Pulitzer Remix. For the entire month of April, National Poetry Month, the Pulitzer Remix project will post a new poem daily from 82 poets who have “found” poems within each of the 82 books that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

I know the collective noun for poems is (mundanely) an anthology, and that the collective noun for poets can be an attic, mezzanine, cellar, anteroom, a scansion, break, stanza, break, deign, mope, peppering, ego, havoc, madness, rejection, and so on, but this… the Pulitzer Remix seems to require a new collective.

An extraction, perhaps?

Found poems are exactly what they sound like, poems found within some other context. Shopping lists, stacks of book titles, a note found on the ground can all hold poetic nuance, but also in larger bodies of text like books or magazine articles words and phrases can be culled to create new and previously (by their original author’s) unimagined meaning. It’s within the realm of this last context that the Pulitzer Remix operates. Each poet has one novel as their Urtext from which they can apply any number of rules and choices in which to create new poetry. The challenge is to ferret out the new and unexpected from the old, not entirely unlike musical sampling where a beat or a motif creates a new framework for new music, bringing the old to new ears.

While it sounds new (and perhaps sacrilegious) to maim and mangle the carefully chosen works of literature the concept isn’t far from what artist Tristan Tzara once described as a recipe for creating a Dadaist poem nearly a century ago.

Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

The poem will be like you. Because no one else would have made the same conscious choices, or could have produced the same exact results, not without a great deal of trial and effort. The found poem, like the Dadaist poem, exists as the hard truth within the joke that goes “I have all the great works of literature in this one single book!” wherein the teller brandishes a dictionary. Perhaps that is the ultimate challenge for the found poet, to create a new work from the dictionary that uses as many words contained in the dictionary without repeating a single one.

And so, in a few short weeks I, along with an extraction of 81 other poets, will begin a massive excursion into the rearrangement of American literature. I will post snippets and links throughout April.

I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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In my early teens growing up in LA I couldn’t wait to have a car so I could go exploring.  Public transit sucked, and getting around on a bicycle, though liberating, was dangerous.  I was too young to actually appreciate how much better getting around by bike was until I had a car at my disposal and the novelty wore off, another digression for another day.

I remember one day a friend of mine had heard that there were t-shirts available at a record store in Westwood, about a 7 mile (and one hour) trip by bike from where we lived. You have to understand, we were young, and the height of fashion for us was a shirt featuring a famous Los Angeles intersection immortalized in a song played on a (then) local radio show hosted by one Dr. Demento.  No one but a true insider would understand why were were proudly wearing Pico and Sepulveda t-shirts, and that’s just the way we liked it.

We had a vague sense of where we were going — it was a pretty straight shot up one of two Boulevards that followed the 405 freeway — but on our way home we somehow managed to find ourselves on a side street and landed in Santa Monica.  Lost and disoriented, we stopped to find a bathroom and get directions.  We went into a bookstore and while my friend found a friendly shopkeeper to direct us I found something wondrous and fascinating on display.

A calendar.

No, not a calender, but something more, something wholly subversive and delightful, something I was sure should have been illegal.  It was called The Wretched Mess Calendar, created by one Milford Stanley Poltroon, and it was hilarious.  Each month was renamed to some sort of theme, and every day was some sort of invented holiday.  Most of the holidays were puns or a play on words or a turn of a phrase — what more could a boy want.  I was in heaven.  Illustrated with clip art and copyright free photos from the early 20th century, it was an exercise in anarchy, as good as any American Dadaist tract.  And before we left to find our way home, I bought it.

Inside, there were all sorts of comments and jokes in the margins, but the centerfold held three things so magical I can practically still see them as clearly as if the 30-plus years since haven’t passed.  One was a section of Yak facts, all of which were totally invented (“Yak’s prefer mozzarella cheese”), and another element was a calendar made entirely of Sundays with the instruction that it was there if you ever needed a month of Sundays for some reason.  The last tidbit was a single poem, a piece of nonsense so perfect that I marveled at what sort of mind could conceive such a rhyme.  It went like this:

There’s a little man inside my head,
He’s wearing purple hose.
He uses my eyes to see out of
And throws garbage down my nose.

Oh, but that’s not all.  You see, there was another little ditty on that page as well, that had to do with hose and a nose, but with entirely different results:

Late last night Old Man Mose
Stuck a length of garden hose
In his ear and out his nose
“Freshens the mind,” said Old Man Mose.

Who was this poetic genius, and how is it I could never find anyone who had ever heard of The Wretched Mess?

Milford (Stanley) Poltroon was, to the best of my internet abilities, the pen name of a former West Coast advertising man named David Franklin Bascom.  Details are sketchy.  He may have quit advertising or he may have retired (a 1912 birth date is listed, which would have placed him in his 60s when I first discovered him) and took up fishing; wrote a couple of joke books on the subject of fishing (How to Fish Good and The Happy Fish Hooker) and apparently either had a syndicated column or a magazine (or both) called The Wretched Mess News.

The calendar, and later when I discovered copies of the Wretched Mess Catalog and News, were done in a style not unlike the zines of 80s and 90s.  Offset print on colored paper, they represented the same sort of aesthetic I aspired to as a sixth grader when I had hoped to start a publishing empire with my collection of illustrated puns.  It wasn’t until after I left college that the ‘zine world opened up and, for a brief time, I participated in the folly.  The echoes of Milford (Stanley) Poltroon and his Wretched Mess enterprises could be heard in all I did.

I don’t mean to suggest here that Bascom/Poltroon was a brilliant poet.  What I have come to understand was that he was, in essence, my touchstone, further proof that adults weren’t all serious. When you’re a boy on the cusp of puberty with a sense of the absurd and a fear of mediocrity, it’s a comfort to know that there’s still hope to grow up to be absurd.

It’s my birthday today.  When I grow up I want to be an inspirational absurdest for another generation.

Poetry Friday is hanging out with Mommy’s Favorite Children’s Books today.

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Suze left her iPod at work this weekend. Normally this isn’t a major disaster but we were having company over and needed to have music playing while we cleaned up the house, if not during company itself.  So I was asked to bring my iPod out of it’s protective gym casing and allowed to set it into the docking station for the day.

Needless to say, my wife and I have different tastes in music. And just to be on the safe side (in case I didn’t realize it) she let me know we had different tastes in music this evening, which was her polite way of saying that she didn’t really like everything my pod was shuffling through. Funny how the fact that I don’t dig what her pod shuffles most of the time doesn’t matter, especially since she hogs the docking station. But I digress.

What I was reminded of tonight, and one of the first times I ever put an iPod in shuffle songs mode, was how well-matched the music seemed to be. Even when it shifted genres or decades or styles, somehow the pod knew how best to match things: when to bring the tempo up or down, how to match beats, matching closing and opening keys. Man, I thought, that’s one smart program they’ve written for a music player.

Except Apple didn’t write that program. I did. And I did it using the time-honored methods outlined by Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara back in the 1920s. And I didn’t even know it (which is really the only proper way to do it). Allow me to explain.

In 1924 little Sami Rosenstock, a.k.a. Tristan Tzara, as one of the founders of the Dada art movement published a book entitled Seven Dada Manifestos. Among the manifestos Tzara included instructions for writing a Dada poem. Here are the complete instructions:

To make a Dadaist poem:
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the point of this little exercise.  The poem will be like you because, in a sense, you have consciously chosen the elements to be included even if you had no real say in their order.  In choosing the article and the length, in choosing the words, you have in essence subconsciously programmed all the possible meanings and permutations of your poem.  In the end, only one order will emerge of all the possibilities, and it couldn’t possibly be otherwise.

You see where I’m going:  my iPod is the bag, the songs I’ve loaded are the words, and the shuffle element randomly chooses songs.  That the final playlist “works” is because in pre-selecting the songs to be included the final playback of those songs in whatever order “resembles me.”  Where I find myself wishing to skip songs when the pod is in shuffle is when it’s playing back a song I loaded for reasons other than personal enjoyment — like songs I loaded in order to make mix discs for my girls, or for specific playlists (like the gym list) that have their own separate applications.  Of course I’m going to think the iPod can read my mind, I’ve loaned it the building blocks of my own subconscious programming.

It’s nice to think of all these pod people walking around with a little bit of Dada filling their ears.

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