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At the Modern Knothole

Fencebooks: an aesthetic profile

Can You Relax in My House
by Michael Earl Craig
70 pages The Red Bird
by Joyelle McSweeney
68 pages Zirconia
by Chelsey Minnis
72 pages Miss America
by Catherine Wagner
72 pages All by Fencebooks   Fence, a Manhattan-based literary magazine, was launched in the spring of 1998, and in the fall of 2001, the budding magazine launched its own press, Fencebooks. Although fiction and criticism appear in each issue, Fence is preeminently a poetry journal, and Fencebooks is an outgrowth of that interest. In her first issue's opening note, editor Rebecca Wolff described a museum exhibit in which a woman's body had been cut vertically into fifty very thin slices, which were displayed between panes of glass throughout the museum's galleries. She likened the display of this anonymous woman to her magazine's display of under-represented writers, but Wolff's tale also suggests the favoured poetic style of many authors published in Fence: sliced, fragmented, recontextualized wafers of language, often arranged on incongruous platters. Fence is largely dedicated to publishing writing by new or aesthetically marginalized writers. The impressive list of internationally known names included in the first issue of Fence - Fanny Howe, Rick Moody, Anne Carson, Paul Muldoon, and Stephen Dixon, among others - provides some idea of its early focus, but the greater part of Fence's contributors possess far more modest reputations. It is a refreshingly apolitical publication; the current issue does include a brief polemic by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in favour of energy independence, but its contributors come from across the United States' cultural spectrum. It is rare to find a magazine where contributors resumes (be they social or professional) have very little to do with their publication, but with Fence this seems to be the case. The first anniversary issue of Fence includes a forum entitled "What's American About American Form?" in which Ann Lauterbach, while describing the individual formal choices that she has made as a poet, inadvertently provides a neat summary of the magazine's formal agenda:

I began to give up the use of classical syntax, the logic of cause and effect, of an assumed relation between subject and object ...  When the gaps began to show, a new sense of possibility came forward in which mobile units were suspended in time and space. In the new syntactical dispensation, hinges or places of contact became an important location of meaning, as in musical composition and in much abstract art; meaning itself seemed to be the occasion of contingency. I began to perceive that the fragments among which we live are cause for celebration rather than lament.

Although part of its stated agenda is to "support young writers who might otherwise have difficulty being recognized because their work doesn't appeal to either the mainstream or to accepted modes of experimentation," the range of experiment that can be found in the pages of the magazine is actually very narrow. Most of Fence's contributors work in the shadow of Black Mountain or the New York poets, crafting disjunctive free verse that values linguistic and imagistic play above all else. Despite contributors' shared sense of fragmented poetic form, readers should not be lulled into a false impression of homogeneity. Most of these writers possess voices that need to be read at length for their distinctive merits to be appreciated. Bundled together, their differences are not always apparent. Happily, this is where Fencebooks comes in. "With our books we hope to provide expanded exposure to poets and writers whose work is excellent, challenging, and truly original" reads the modest mission statement, writers who are "distinguished by idiosyncrasy and intelligence rather than by allegiance with camps, schools, and cliques. "Drawing on the best of Fence's younger or under-recognized contributors, it gives them the space they need to demonstrate their individuality. Chelsea Minnis' Zirconia was the inaugural winner of the women-only Alberta Prize. A dark and flashy collection of prose poems and loosely expanded texts, these poems defy classification-not because they are particularly hermetic, but merely because a word for this sort of writing has yet to be coined. Most of Zirconia is almost unquotable. Rather than using traditional free-verse typesetting strategies, Minnis breaks her language up with long stretches of ellipses, slowing her readers' eyes to a crawl and disrupting the otherwise straightforward syntax of her tumbling sentences. One excerpt from "Sectional" will suffice to illustrate Minnis' tactics:

....I sink into a reverie in leather.................
............sectional couches..........................
.........with caramel in my mouth..................
..............so that I am reliving....................
.................a moment and revolving............
caramel as I am surrounded on all sides by
.......soft panels of genuine........................
...............................................................
..............leather.....and I run my hand along
the leather unknowingly..............................

At times, the ellipses will carry on for several lines (or even entire pages), often isolating single words among squadrons of neatly marshaled periods. The fragments of verbiage become baubles to be admired or lozenges to be sucked, while the content of the poems sometimes fades into the background.  Vigilant readers will be rewarded, however, for Minnis has assembled a luxurious and richly symbolic little book. Her female speaker never observes conventional pieties and is constantly making bizarre confessions. In "Primrose," she recounts her late mother's rape in a torrent of heraldic imagery - foxes, white harts, and bloody birdbaths - before gleefully describing her own murderous campaign against "gentleman rapists" with "handsome sideburns." Elsewhere, she keeps a stalker's diary about her interactions with local babies, which peer at her, fall in love with her, and find themselves arranged across cities in tight geometric patterns. She isn't always this gaudy; one piece is a simple reflection on the sensuality and isolation of childhood sunburns. Whether thanking a friend for the gift of a skull ring or flamboyantly claiming possession of the moon, Minnis' archly adolescent tone is a constant "'I want to eat the fighting swordfish in the sea who stick their swords in boats!' And, 'I want to eat their swords.'" For all its melodrama, Zirconia is Fencebooks' most conservative offering to date. Ellipses aside, Minnis eschews fragmented language and disordered syntax, and her poems are fairly straightforward narratives and monologues. As her speaker contemplates tearing open the V of an exposed sternum or recounts her years washing mirrors in a torturers' ballroom, one is reminded of the French symbolists - a female, snickering Compte de Lautramont. Zirconia is a wicked and seductive collection of nightmares for contemporary decadents. Joyelle McSweeney's The Red Bird won Fencebooks' other prize, the Fence Modern Poets Series. The Red Bird is a shockingly good debut collection, far and away Fencebooks' most exciting title.  Imagine Mina Loy and John Ashbery fused in a single audacious young mind - McSweeney, only in her mid 20s, writes with a degree of earned confidence that is genuinely rare. The Red Bird exemplifies everything that is great about Fence; its first line, "I stood at the modern knothole," might as well be the magazine's credo.  McSweeney's poems are exuberant, lyrical, and unapologetically disjunctive. She finds joy in dense agglomerations of sounds and images that sometimes illuminate, sometimes baffle (frequently both):

Up!  Construction of this world
is a job for laymen:  linens,
ramekins - a cake for each guest,
a souvenir mussel shell no one can touch,
a whorl working inward.  A song to sing in bed.
                    ("Stereo")

McSweeney is always ready to gaze outside of realism, even while seated inside its "vitrine composition."  She triangulates between Ahab and Darwin with the fervor of a futurist:

Radio Sucre. You are the final hope of
   France.
This is a Penguin History.
We cannot be expected to find room
for all questions that may be asked.
                    ("The Round Table")

A riot of debris tumbles through McSweeney's poems, but her chief concerns are historical. In his forward, Allen Grossman dubs McSweeney an "ecstatic pragmatist" whose greatest assets are her "awareness of experience" and "the facts of this world." She often comes across as an anti-Pound: the ships, archaisms, juxtapositions, and world heroes of the Cantos are all here, but shorn of fascist utopianism. "Roman" could very well be about Pound himself, with its wry direction "Let him keep his opinion. But correct / his language," its "I admit; I did not show my usual sagacity / in choosing this course; this violent mem'ry route." However, it is unfair to cast The Red Bird in the shadow of Pound, for McSweeney is a stridently autonomous poet. The "speedy, undulating greens" of this book are free of spite, awe, rage, and pomposity, and offer a refreshing and playful take on the intrusions of history into a contemporary intelligence. The Red Bird is a gift; Fencebooks deserves an award for discovering it. The two titles that Fencebooks has published outside of its prize series are no less interesting. Miss America, Catherine Wagner's first book-length collection, is the only one of these books that adheres faithfully to the formal values most often favoured by Fence. It is a difficult book of playful and unapologetically disjunctive poems, many of which feel as though they've been trimmed out of larger, more orderly texts. "Fraction Anthems," the long concluding sequence, does this explicitly. This last is accompanied by a series of endnotes arrived at by a mysterious process which involves Wagner "passing" her social security number through her poems.  "Fraction Anthem20," for example,

And through it
            spawny all
I'm
-A massive doghead poked in the ajar
it was the landlord's
          Scared it screaming

is reduced to the even more enigmatic "20ANTHEM And poked-in it-was  screaming." The notes are not gripping reading, but they do illustrate the poetics informing Miss America. Most of Wagner's poems feel as though they are not so much written as built out of overheard language, words plucked from the mouths of bystanders and the pages of magazines, and from the author's interior monologue, shaved down to verbal oddments and assembled as a kind of extreme verbal collage. The "Magazine Poems" that comprise the bulk of Miss America are a little less hermetic and much more successful. Far from the conventionally glib pop-culture riffs that the title seems to promise, they are clever, oblique tangents dedicated to magazines like Nature, Cosmopolitan, Social Text, or the Sears Roebuck catalogue, and chase quick trails of association before petering out in unexpected declarations or inarticulate sound. This is potentially banal territory, but Wagner has no fear of banality, for she knows that her wit is quick enough to redeem nearly anything. "Two Poems for Entertainment Weekly" begins

If you are Gwyneth
You are never toenails on my rug
Abounding
From west to east

and later demands "Scout and Rumor suck me off / We will flower inside you like a dog at your 'trails." This is poetry that makes a virtue of inconsistency, drawing its grace from protean speed rather than the intrinsic value of its constituent parts.  Wagner is a bit of a word-musician, too, and her sorties into singsong verse reveal Miss America as a volume of feuding languages - spoken, written, black, white, literary, commercial, modern, antique, literary, and vulgar, all competing for space, attention, significance.  "A Poem for Harper's Bazaar" veers between nursery rhyme, incantation, confessional, invective and coroner's report:

Black cat gimme a gnaw
I wore your underclothes
Walked to the river and soaked
   my toe
Down to the undergrow
Nail gone, go callus, bonepull, raw
You been eating too much too fast
You fat and gassy and tepid

Another poem, "This Land is Your Land," filters Woody Guthrie's anthem through Ives-like reharmonization and a woman's half-articulate moment of crisis. The result is instantly memorable and truly frightening, a piece of singsong horror that is resolved with a pulled punch: "If it is gorgeous it is yours." Michael Earl Craig's Can You Relax in My House is Fencebooks' most eccentric and accessible selection. It is a volume of surreal, free verse Americana and farmhouse modernism, full of unexpected violence and melancholic jokes. Craig's speakers spend much of their time staring at mute objects in an earnest attempt to will them into significance. Poems sometimes offer instruction in the joys and dangers of this delicate art. Stan and Marty, a recurring pair of comics, are immersed in this interpretive toil in "Springtime Hits the Pioneer Valley." Marty writes a letter to Stan:

It's spring again and the sparrows are
   pieces of junk.
I don't care much for nature
and I - do you?
A string of ants files bravely into a
   soda straw
in search of a turkey Reuben.
It's like falling in love with the waitress
who cuts and aligns your ham links.
Now in that case I can relate.
Our heroes are in the outside looking in.
Or vice versa.  Either way
it's a two-way mirror.

The furnishings of this passage are typical of Can You Relax in My House; animals and food are gaudy, decaying, interchangeable, and everyone is engaged in a kind of solipsistic voyeurism. Stan, the more adventuresome of the pair, has broken his habit of peering through dim reflective glass:

Don't trouble yourself with thought,
comrade. Don't lose
to a nail on a wall
the armband you've worked so hard for.

Instead of making gnomic pronouncements about the world, Stan stares into trees, spotting forms in the tangle. This kind of interpretation offers its own horrors, however:

[...] a kind of canoe can be seen.  In it
a kitten kicks back eating finchmeat
-oh, oh that's awful.

At his best, Craig reads like a wintry range-life Apollinaire. His poems are full of gramophones, hospitals, spadefoots, cigars, anthropologists, and livestock, all likely to transform into one another at any moment, or to bob up out of the depths of a still and weedy lake. Remarkably, the fog of surrealism that hangs over a first reading of Can You Relax in My House dissipates quite quickly as one lives with the book for a while. Sensual sleight of hand is Craig's one great extravagance; otherwise, he writes with plain diction and shuns regular form and flashy acoustics in favour of a language that is poetic only because its integrity is so great. Once the reader becomes accustomed to Craig's deliberately disordered optics (the final poem is titled "The Tilt of His Head Makes a Thought Bubble of the Harbor"), the poems become quite invitingly attainable.  Interestingly, Can You Relax in My House is the only title published by Fencebooks that fulfills its credo of publishing work that might otherwise go unnoticed. It is hard to imagine Minnis, McSweeney, and Wagner not finding publishers for their collections, but Craig's poems seem like the sort of thing that would be too odd for most editors and that would be perpetually faced with comments along the lines of "this is superior work, but it doesn't quite fit our list." If Fencebooks continues to publish work that, like Craig's, falls outside of its own trademark disjunctive modernism, it will distinguish itself as a press that is both vital and genuinely unique - an arduous aspiration, for experimentalism fossilizes into conservatism very quickly.  Fence's mission statements are free of avant-garde aspirations, and this is a fortunate bit of honesty, for very little appears in the magazine that lies outside of accepted genres that have existed since the early seventies. Most of Fence's contributors are engaged in developing techniques pioneered by Louis Zukofsky or the first Language Poets in the sixties and seventies, walking a fine line between sense and nonsense on the extreme edge of what most readers are willing to call poetry. This sort of writing has proliferated in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Canada) over the last three decades, developing into a kind of postmodern formalism (or, if you prefer, informalism) that is every bit as rule-bound as traditionally formal verse. The imperative to undermine traditional concepts of syntax, narrative, and meaning, to write verse that works through verbal collage, has developed into its own orthodoxy, and Fence's poetry editors seldom select work that falls out of line with these precepts. There is nothing at all wrong with this, for, when practiced by a talented and intellectually sincere writer, this sort of poetry can be extraordinarily rewarding - at least, to those who have learned how to read it. It is disingenuous, however, to refer to recent writing in this vein as "experimental," or to claim that it will face insurmountable difficulties on its way to publication. Their work may not outsell that of Billy Collins, but Language poets get tenure.  Where, then, is poetry's avant-garde? Perhaps among synthesists like Craig, true fence-sitters who work between the safe havens of disjunctive verse, the all-American reflective lyric, and the loose performance-poetry of the spoken-word crowd. Maybe there aren't that many of these writers around. In any case, the question of experimentalism is ultimately irrelevant. These four authors do succeed in extending the range of things that have been said in aesthetically satisfying and technically rigorous verse - an achievement that is arguably far more important than yet another reinvention of the poetic wheel. Most of them do not sit quite as far outside of the poetic mainstream as Fence seems to believe, but they are all indisputably talented and idiosyncratic authors. Fencebooks' first years have been an unqualified success; with any luck, their next will bring more strange and wonderful discoveries into print.