Remembering Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014)

January 3, 2015

salamun-butler-vws

Studying with Tomaž Šalamun while he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Pittsburgh from 2005-2007 was one of the highlights of my life. I took four classes with him, he was on my MFA thesis committee, and when he left Pittsburgh, for what I believe was the last time, I drove him to the airport in what he called my “tank.” He was a remarkable human being. Generous, expansive, kind, and dynamic, Šalamun profoundly impacted everyone with whom he came in contact. On first reading his poems, they leapt at me, and have continued flying around my head for years. In my favorite of his books, Balada za Metko Krašovec (1981),[1] he declares: “I am the mouth of the Book.”[2] He ate voraciously of the world, of books, and sometimes spoke and wrote like the wellspring of literature itself.[3] He was a powerful poet who invited everyone to soar with him: “I like being in the air. I descend on the city, on / people.”[4] I am thrilled to be one of the people he descended upon.

Looking through my notebooks from the three consecutive spring semesters I studied with him (in 2006, two workshops at once), the vast majority of what I wrote down during class were the names and works of poets, artists, musicians, novelists, philosophers. Tomaž had an immense capacity for awe and appreciation, and he readily shared it with everyone around him. He read and absorbed culture to a remarkable degree, letting everything flicker through his being: from the work of his young students—he adored the work of Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder, among many others—to his peers, modernist painters, and filmmakers—he argued vehemently that Pier Paolo Pasolini was a poet—and so much more. Every semester he would order roughly eight books from the bookstore, but he would not usually assign them or schedule days for us to discuss them. Instead, he would hand out what he was reading that week, what he was excited about. As a result, not only did my library of books and files of photocopied poems and essays grow considerably, but I perhaps caught some of Šalamun’s own catholicity and voracity, his passion for the contemporary, and his faith in poetry. It was hard not to.

Returning to my (seemingly) ancient notebooks this morning, I was initially struck by how little I wrote down of what Šalamun said in class. But then I remembered why. His voice was music. It didn’t always make sense and my pen could not keep up, but it was such a joy to hear him speak while occasionally capturing the gems of books he was reading or his reflections on the books his students were reading. I would spend much of class sunk in nothing but his voice. He would read poems in a way that transformed how I teach creative writing workshops. He would explore every nook and cranny of where a poem took his enthusiastic and often confounding readings, no matter who wrote it, and then he would go somewhere else. He would get up and spread imaginary wings or become, however briefly, a real dinosaur. How could I capture such performances in notes? What would be the point? I did not even try. But I hope his voice still resonates in Cathedral of Learning 512 and I know it will continue to do so with the many people who had the treat to be in that room,

Šalamun was above all a poet. Everything about him resonated with poetry. He would often end class early to have one-on-one conferences with students. Suffering from the normal “crisis of artistic faith during the first year of grad school”-syndrome, my first meeting with him, quite simply, totally renewed my ambitions and convinced me that poetry was something I should pursue. True or not, I return frequently to what he told me. He had that kind of power, that kind of poetic power: he could transform or refresh almost instantly. And he did so because he was a poet in the strongest sense of the word.

For one of the very few things he said that I did write down was: “The poet has to be totally a poet! We don’t need mediocre poets.” Tomaž Šalamun was totally a poet. He encouraged those around him to be total poets as well. (Whether any of us became such mythical beings or not is probably beside the point.) In an age when poetry seems low on the list of anyone’s priorities, even those of us who read, write, and teach poetry, when an MFA classroom can often resemble a seminar on professionalism and/or mediocrity, Šalamun subtly, warmly, and convincingly required the same total devotion to poetry of his students that was on display in his own work throughout his career. And once that easily fulfilled requirement was out of the way, we all then flew and will keep descending on the cities and the people with him.

———

[1] Tomaž Šalamun, Balada za Metko Krašovec (Ljubljana: Državna založba Slofenije, 1981).

[2] Tomaž Šalamun, “‘Within the mountain . . . ,’” in A Ballad for Metka Krašovec, trans. Michael Biggins (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Twisted Spoon Press, 2001), 49. I sadly have no capacity for Slovenian so will rely on English translations. That said, Šalamun was extensively involved in many of his English translations, and not everyone translating him knew Slovenian, so the English translations have their own particular authority and power.

[3] If this sounds hyperbolic, I invite the reader to relish in such hyperbole, as Šalamun would have certainly encouraged them to do so with his own remarkable, Whitmanian verbal hyperbole, for “Tomaž Šalamun is naked and a proletarian”(“His Favorite Ride,” in The Book for My Brother [New York: Harcourt, 2006], 13), “Tomaž Šalamun is a monster. / Tomaž Šalamun is a sphere rushing through the air” (“History,” trans. Bob Perelman and Šalamun, in The Four Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems, ed. Christopher Merrill [1988; repr., Buffalo, NY: White Pine, 2002], 77).

[4] Šalamun, “West Broadway,” in A Ballad for Metka Krašovec, 43.


The Rocking Chair

November 25, 2014

I am happy to announce that my first volume of poetry, The Rocking Chair, is forthcoming from Blue Sketch Press in 2015. I have worked on this book for many years and am delighted that it is finally seeing the light of day. Here is a description. More info to come.

The Rocking Chair by Bradley J. Fest

Bradley J. Fest’s debut work, The Rocking Chair, is a long poem that emerges from the detritus of contemporaneity, absorbing and accumulating whatever it can from the networked chaos of the overmediated present. Assembled from science fiction and the western, critical theory and hardcore, videogames and phenomenology, footnotes and simulation, diabolism and hyperarchivalism (etc.), this work yawps through diverse material and discursive registers. Working from the footnote and endnote as primary formal constraints, Fest invents a poetry in conversation with the Man with No Name as much as John Ashbery, Alain Badiou, Stephen Hawking, or The Blood Brothers. The poems abuse textuality through misplaced rigor and confused genre archetypalism, across sections and subsections of lyric reflection and play, in order to discover vibrant and vital materialitites. As humorous as it is deeply serious—declaring the task of “making anxiety fun”—The Rocking Chair enacts a radical poetics of assemblage and emergence, seeking to articulate some way of being and an imaginary commensurate with life in the twenty-first century.


November Links

November 16, 2014

I have had a great couple days listening to the boundary 2 conference. And after a productive and interesting week teaching Dear Esther (2012), Gone Home (2013), and Jennifer Egan‘s Look at Me (2001), I’m going to take the day to deeply immerse myself in football. So, I have a bit of time for some links.

 

Science and Environment

Rob Nixon reviews Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.

Margalit Fox, “Jonathan Schell, 70, Author on War in Vietnam and Nuclear Age, Dies.”

Mark Landler, “US and China Reach Climate Accord After Months of Talks.”

Geoff Brumfiel, “New Clock May End Time as We Know It.”

Annalee Newitz, “It’s Looking More and More Likely That We Live in a Multiverse.”

Don Koenig, “Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Caused by a Nuclear Explosion High Over the United States – Imminent danger to the U.S. # 1.”

 

Politics

(Wow. I must have been busy if I haven’t yet mentioned the 2014 midterm elections.)

Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The Democrats Lost Big Tonight. Why Obama Should Double Down.”

Michael Stratford, “What a GOP-Led Congress Means for Higher Ed.”

Scott Jaschik, “Governors and Higher Ed.”

Leigh Phillips, “The Solution Is Democracy.”

Andy Borowitz, “Exit Polls Indicate Nation Suffering From Severe Memory Loss.”

And Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, “College Athletes of the World, Unite.”

 

International

“Mandela’s Reflections: Meditations and Interventions from the boundary 2 Collective.”

Vijay Prashad, “Making Poverty History.”

 

Literature and Culture

McKenzie Wark reviews William Gibson’s The Peripheral.

Mitchell Kriegman reviews Reflections in a Black Mirror.

Kriston Capps, “Escape Claws: Why Wolverine Had to Die to for the Sake of Marvel Comics.”

After New Media, 2014-2015.

R. A. Judy, “The Poetic Socialities of Radical Humanism, or the Giving Blues.” 

Sherryl Vint on Science Fiction and Biopolitics.

Rob Horning, “Social Media Is Not Self-Expression.”

And Jeff Guo, “The Mathematician Who Proved Why Hipsters All Look Alike.”

 

Humanities and Higher Education

Paul A. Bové, “The Human in University Education.”

Gerry Canavan, “Meritocracy, Lottery, Game.”

Sonali Kohli, “What Happens to Test Scores When Teachers Are Paid $125,000 a Year?”

 

Pittsburgh

“Conflict Kitchen Closes After Death Threat.”

Conflict Kitchen’s Statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

And the Undergraduate Literature Conference at the University of Pittsburgh.


Two New Poems: “Oceanic” and “Survival City”

September 28, 2014

I am delighted to say that two new poems of mine just went up at the Organism for Poetic Research‘s journal, PELT, in its third volume. The poems are “Oceanic” and “Survival City.”


Organism for Poetic Research Launches Volume 3 of PELT in NYC

September 23, 2014

PeltLaunch

For anyone in New York (I’m not, sadly), go check out the launch of volume 3 of PELT, a journal published by the Organism for Poetic Research, in which I have two poems. This volume of PELT is a special issue on “Sci-Pulp Poetics.” The launch will be accompanied by a reading at Wendy’s Subway this Friday, September 26th at 7:00 pm. Wendy’s Subway is at 722 Metropolitan Avenue, 2nd Floor, Brooklyn, New York 11206 and can be reached by taking the L train to Graham Ave.

There will be readings and performances by:
The Organism for Poetic Research
Anna Gurton-Wachter
Tiziana LaMelia
& Morgan Vo
Film Screenings by Amie Robinson (Nykur) and Sonia Levy (Pôle)
& more

The movie begins in this flat, journalistic style. A universe with a long natural history, spotted with strange and alluring artifacts of various ‘forerunner’ species. Plaster slides from the walls in the house it rains inside of; he feels for the tissue of sci-fi without the story. So, we invite the dystopian poetics of paranoia and ESP-powered feline-hybrids. “It is as if a cleavage, time, had opened in the floor.”


“One Summer Near Niagara” in The 2River View

June 18, 2014

A poem of mine, “One Summer Near Niagara,” was just published in the summer issue of The 2River View. This is an older poem and I’m delighted to finally see it in print. There is also an audio file on the page of me reading the poem, which will play automatically if you are using Chrome, has a button to play if you are using Internet Explorer, and won’t play at all if you’re using Firefox.


The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse and Other Portents of Doom

May 19, 2014

Climate Change

The New York Times on the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Paul Krugman, “Points of No Return.”

Eyder Peralta, “New Report Finds Climate Change Already Having Broad Impact.”

Gerry Canavan on “Dystopia, Anti-Utopia, and the End of the World.”

Peter Frase, “Adjusting to the Apocalypse.”

A very interesting piece at Jacobin reflecting on an analogy between abolitionists and environmentalists: Matt Karp, “A Second Civil War.”

Roger Peet, “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis.”

Martin Lukacs, “New, Privatized African City Heralds Climate Apartheid.”

Julie Beck on John Oliver’s “Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate.”

Saskia Sassen, “Countdown to Oblivion: The Real Reason We Can’t Stop Global Warming.”

Mike Wall, “To Combat Climate Change, Humanity Must Act Now, NASA Chief Says.”

Brad Plumer, “Five Horrifying Maps of America’s Massive Drought.”

And “Picture This: U.S. Cities Under 12 Feet of Sea Level Rise.” An example:

The Back Bay in Boston under 12 Feet of Sea Level Rise

The Back Bay in Boston under 12 Feet of Sea Level Rise

But don’t fret, “This Couple is Making Roads Out of Solar Panels, and They Actually Work.”

And Michelle Nijhuis, “How to Laugh at Climate Change.”

 

NSA and National Security State

Coral Davenport, “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat by Military Researchers.”

Glen Greenwald, “‘I Have Been to the Darkest Corners of the Government, and What they Fear is Light.'”

Michael Paterniti on Glen Greenwald, “The Man Who Knows Too Much.”

Democracy Now: “‘The Stuff I Saw Really Began to Disturb Me': How the U.S. Drone War Pushed Snowden to Leak the NSA Docs.”

Jason N. Breslow, “How Edward Snowden Leaked ‘Thousands’ of NSA Documents.”

Willie Osterweil, “Hollywood’s Love Affair with Surveillance.”

 

International Affairs

Ioan Grillo, “How Russia Arms America’s Southern Neighbors.”

Mary Beth Quirk, “Europe’s Highest Court Tells Google People Have the ‘Right to be Forgotten.'”

 

H.R.Giger Art 75

US Culture and Literature

H. R. Giger will be missed.

Bhaskar Sunkara, “Let’s Embrace the End of Food.”

My friend David Letzler is cited in the new Wikipedia entry on the “Encyclopedic Novel.”

Mark Strauss, “A Key Reason Why U.S. Politicians Don’t Understand Science.”

Anthony Lane reviews Godzilla (2014) in “Big Guy” for The New Yorker.

“Super Mario World Meets Game of Thrones.”

Matt Seidel, “The Worst Book Review Ever.”

And more from Salon‘s deluge on irony: Laura Miller, “What Hannah Arendt Understood About Irony that David Foster Wallace Didn’t.” (This is an interesting piece, but I continue to not understand why DFW is being yoked into these discussions, esp. in the title [unless it is to generate hits . . .]. Even a brief traipsing through DFW’s work will reveal his deep understanding of laughter and the need for irony–and indeed, from most people I’ve talked to, Infinite Jest and his short fiction and essays produce that rare gift: laughing out loud from reading. At the end of the day this is really an interesting interview with Marie Louise Knott on Arendt, but again the interviewee understands irony better than the people yoking DFW into their conversation: “Media irony is the result of a society, where people are thought of as consumers, while Arendt’s irony is the contrary. She wants to get closer to reality by overcoming her own impediments of thinking.” Wallace’s own use of irony [not what he says about television and media] seems to accomplish something similar. . . .)

And more! A pretty interesting piece on “normcore.” R. Jay Magill, Jr., “Irony, Sincerity, and Normcore: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Foster Wallace, and the End of Rebellion”: “the specialness of individual rebelliousness is over. The cultural power granted to symbols and accouterments of dissent — signs once referring to the bourgeois person’s cheeky, recalcitrant individuality, his or her deep infusion with modernism — only work when they remain in the margins, when they mean something over and against what everyone else is doing.” (There’s something the Frankfurt School said about this . . . and holy moly I miss the 19990s! Oh Wait.)

 

Archives

Andrew Leonard, “Why the ’90s are Literally Disappearing from History.” Well, there goes my youth.

 

Science

Mark Strauss, “The Astronomer Who Wanted to Rearrange the Solar System, Using Nukes.”

Clara Moskowitz, “Why Science Could be Close to Solving the Biggest Mystery in the Universe.”

Sarah Charley on Mark Kuse and N. Katherine Hayle’s team-taught class at Duke: “Science Fiction or Science Fact?”

 

Humanities and Higher Ed

Thomas Frank, “Congratulations Class of 2014: You’re Totally Screwed.”

Rebecca Schuman, “Confessions of a Grade Inflator.”

Colleen Flaherty on the lightning fast dismissal of faculty at Quinnipiac University, “Jobless in Two Days.”

Ollivier Dyens, “How Artificial Intelligence is About to Disrupt Higher Education.”

Michael S. Roth, “Young Minds in Critical Condition.”

Jonathan Gatehouse, “American Dumbs Down.”

Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise.”

To end on a note of laughter: A history of Europe through student writing. Anders Henrikkson, “A History of the Past: Life Reeked with Joy.”

 

And I will soon have two new poems, “Oceanic” and “Survival City,” appearing in the third volume of PELT, a publication of the Organization for Poetic Research.


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