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I don't yet know what Gerald Burns's departure will mean, but his stay has coincided in my life with one of the most enlivening few years of artmaking I've had. I probably ought to back up a little.
The poetry scene here in Portland, outside institutions schools and such (I rather prefer what can be described with the acronym D.I.Y. do-it-yourself), has had plenty of ups and downs in the twenty years I've participated. One of the most dismal downs, for me at any rate, was the mid-to-late 80s.
There had been a heyday, for whatever reason, for poetry here in the late 70s through the early 80s, largely produced by members of the 60s Generation. Grants were still occasionally to be had, yet the bouquet of antiestablishmentarianism lingered on, at least in our quaint little Pacific Northwest backwater.
The Portland Poetry Festival, started by Ken Kesey and kindred spirits, showcased local and national poets among the roses of Washington Park, Mt. Hood hovering whitely in the background; ArtQuake sprawled in its commercial clamor across the brick-paved downtown, and on a smaller scale, open mike readings, collectives and small press publishers made art without any authorities telling them to.
Two or three poets had national reputations; most of the rest could be seen as demimondaines, wannabes, posers, cranks, nuisances. Still, things were pretty lively for what was essentially a small town.
For whatever reasons, a lot of the juice drained from the scene after the middle of the 80s. I may just be projecting this, since these years coincided with a midlife crisis and a writing slump of my own, but I don't really think so. I recall that things for small-time poets and the like were dismal enough. The oldest of the receding generation were aging, sinking into their own midlife crises, beginning to suffer the ill effects of hard living, losing confidence, cocooning into their home-lives, and mostly just plain getting tired.
For equally obscure reasons, the turn of the 90s began to bring about a few flutters of something better. ArtQuake roused itself from its torpor and began featuring serious artists rather than events sheerly designed to sell beer and spring rolls. The open mike readings finally found a friendly home at Café Lena.
Powell's Books had begun to develop a community spirit to match its square footage. Some of Portland's wayward children returned from plusher locations; a new generation of writers, artists and musicians finally graduated from high school and started looking around for somewhere to display their talents.
As for myself, I had pulled out of my mid-thirties funk and begun writing again, convinced that if I were to be a failure, at least I'd be a failure with a portfolio. Brian Christopher Hamilton, a flashy young guy with a little money and a lot of big ideas, had asked me to help him edit what he hoped would be the premier literary journal in this part of the country. I was only too willing to help him burn his financial fleet. You never know when these big ideas might amount to something, I figured, acknowledging that I had nothing to lose.
Part of Brian's strategy for setting up his premier literary journal was to familiarize himself with the snazziest productions around the country. He would haunt the smoke shops and book stores around Portland looking for what other bright and kindred souls were up to. He shared with me a particularly interesting example of small press work he'd snapped up at Powell's newly-furbished Small Press Section, the 20th Anniversary issue of a magazine from Austin called Salt Lick.
Jim Haining, Salt Lick's designer, editor and printer had put together a spectacular collage: individually hand-pasted arrangements of airline liquor bottle labels, packets of dried flowers, a page from an 1890s Scientific American, a page from a stamp album; interspersed with these handmade splendors was literature by the likes of Robert Creeley, Paul Shuttleworth and Sheila E. Murphy.
I remember lying back with Salt Lick on my living room sofa, soaking up a section of graphics and some very dense-looking poetry by Gerald Burns, thinking, "This is a guy I'd love to sit down and have a chat with!"
One of my biggest problems with the Portland D.I.Y. poetry scene was its relentless ignorance, its refusal to discuss any but the most superficial and trashy aspects of existence. I'd taken a liking to a variety of cultural ornaments of both the traditional Western European and worldwide provenance; I'd long been dissatisfied with poems either about guys riding around in cars smoking pot and drinking beer or earth mothers drinking tea in their organic gardens or hot sex between any arrangement of these folk.
Anybody, in a particularly blatant form of reverse puritanism, mentioning topics other than a fairly narrow range, was accused of being "academic" meaning a stereotyped version of what had been academic fifty years before.
I had enjoyed toying with mythmaking and use of the occasional traditional device in my own poetry, and in fact was tired of being razzed for any sign of cleverness I might feel like unwrapping in the name of poetry. I longed to discuss Sumerian mythology and the proper use of the semicolon with someone for a change.
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Gerald Burns showed a willingness to write about seemingly anything that came into his mind, a place that seemed to contain a considerable expanse and variety of contents. In a line so long that the font size of the type had to be reduced, Burns would discuss Italian prerenaissance candlemaking, dog breeding, pastry shells, 70s TV sitcoms and the use of color in Sherlock Holmes stories all in the same breath.
Following this haphazardly ordered catalogue of topics was no particular problem, since the author used standard (though admittedly complex) punctuation, grammar and syntax. The thrust of his overall argumentation tended to take care of itself within the design of the poem. The important part, for me anyway, was that he had a wider range of topics than drinking and masturbation.
Burns differed, too, from his avant garde contemporaries, in that his discourse was continuous. Increasingly, since the advent of Modernism in the earlier part of this century, poetic parlance has tended to be broken into discontinuous images and trails of thought, simple as its grammar and vocabulary may be. The most common problem Burns's readers seem to have is with the range of his reference; his actual grammatical structure is fairly straightforward.
Another problem Burns might present for contemporary audiences is that his subject matter may simply not seem poetic. What is commonly deemed poetic is largely a matter of convention, an unspoken compact between author and audience in a particular time or place. An unsophisticated audience might expect servings of sex, violence, booze or personal confession in order to feel poetically satisfied; a more avant garde audience might want anomie, textual manipulation or political consciousness. Burns's use of intellection and cultural products as ornament is surely off-putting to such expectations.
It wasn't a problem for me at any rate; the pattern and flow of his thought seemed attraction enough for me to simply to pass over unfamiliar references and enjoy the process. If a bell didn't ring for me at the mention of a character from, say, a Balzac novel, half a line later I will have remembered seeing "Banjo" Barney McKenna's fat little fingers flying in a concert hall. It was a little like watching a Mel Brooks movie don't worry if you don't get a particular joke, here comes another one. No chance that a reader's area of knowledge can be coterminous with the author's in any event; agonizing over the fact only hampers enjoyment of the writing.
It only took a little bit of lobbying for me to persuade Brian to consider Gerald Burns as a potential contributor to Rain City Review. In the Spring of 1993, Burns had recently had his facetiously-named Shorter Poems (well, they were shorter, but they were also wider in the bargain) gain a National Poetry Series Award and publication by Dalkey Archive Press. Brian was occupying a spot on the ArtQuake Governing Board, and Burns seemed a good choice to invite to Portland for a spotlight appearance. Gerald was asked for manuscripts.
It was about that time that Jim Haining came to Portland. He had acquired Multiple Sclerosis and was checking out the Pacific Northwest with a view of its cool and damp climate ameliorating his condition. Of course he also scheduled himself a reading at Powell's and brought plenty of his products to sell. I attended in company with Edward Bell, whom I'd been chatting up, a store employee and acquaintance of Haining, Burns & Co. Haining read from his book A Quincy History, answered questions and made remarks on some of the writers he'd published. I raised my hand: "Gerald Burns: does he talk like he writes?" Haining gave me one of his leonine looks. "About the same, just faster."
When Gerald's manuscripts for Rain City Review arrived, I found that I liked what he'd sent us as much as the work in Salt Lick. "enter Spontaneo. He speaks" with its attached 17th century woodcuts and commentary was by far my favorite and I passed it on to my editorial colleagues with my enthusiastic scribble.
Brian wasn't convinced. He was having trouble penetrating Gerald's thick varnish of erudition. He kept the poem in question by his busy phone, getting a laborious few lines into "Spontaneo" before someone else would ring up. Again and again. He would let his eyes dribble down the page instead of doodling during the telcon. Finally, to hear him tell it, all at once the method slapped him in the face. The intellectual arabesques are the pattern in the carpet.
Brian had been geralded. He sat down and wrote about the experience in a poem with a familiar arrangement of long lines. I was pleased but not surprised that his reaction to getting Gerald's method in one flash had produced yet another Burns-influenced poem. I had produced a couple myself the month before when I had been geralded. Burns steamed along, leaving a wake of poets he'd affected like Brian and me, all of them with a wonderful new trick in their repertories.
It's difficult to explain the geraldpoem, but easy enough to point to (once the poem's written). It requires the long line: broken prose won't do the trick. Something between six and nine beats per line is usually about right, or barring metrical measurement, an outer limit of the PC screen or margin-flange will usually do the trick, but each line must have its own integrity and character.
Charles Olson's essay "Projective Verse", if you can get past the author's huge clouds of vapor, is a pretty fair guide to what's going on. A large and circumstantial body of knowledge in several areas of endeavor is also necessary, as well as a relentless sense of rhythm. That's about as far as I'd care to try pinning it down; I urge poets to study examples of the form in Burns, Olson, Pound and others, get a head of steam on, and let 'er rip.
Of course, this form falls easily into place in orthodox formalistic taxonomy; poets have been writing windy discursive poetry even before Lucretius. Gerald's practice, I suspect, was highly tinted by his affinity for 18th Century poetry by the likes of Christopher Smart, Pope and Dr. Johnson, for instance . . . but still and all, Burns's style of verse is more polychromatic and less linear, more based on conversational rhythms (Gerald's conversation anyway), more 20th Century. Rain City Review ran two of Gerald Burns's poems in its second issue, as well as others subsequently.
Gerald Burns and August Kleinzahler were picked to headline the poetry readings and flown in for the 1993 ArtQuake. That was when the event was in its salad days, operating high on the hog. Quiet Lion Press and Rain City Review occupied a
table at the Small Press area, and I was able to put in a few hours watching fairgoers mostly not buy small press publications. Maybe I'm being too downbeat about the sales we sold enough to justify the effort; it was an opportunity to serve Art by working on my tan, yakking with other literaphiles and watching bizarrely underdressed suburbanites wandering, gawking, eating before I spent all night working a few blocks away at the Marine Exchange.
It was due to gainful employment that I missed the post-festivity partying and both of the headliners. I also missed the slam-selected Local Poets' Reading where ultraviolent performance poet Brian Tibbetts had an irate audience member's food Thai noodles, I'm told thrown on him. Both headliners attended, and, one hopes, were hepped to our happenin' performance scene here.
Actually, I miss ArtQuake, for all its faults. It finally ran out of gas in 1995 after hemorrhaging money for a couple of seasons. A public Arts & Crafts festival situated at various locations near the city center, it was admittedly for the most part groundling fare and an excuse for food and drink vendors to make money, but still thrust art in the public's face like a sno-cone. It beats the nothing that prevails as I write this, and gave some of us poets a chance to make a few bucks and the scene doing scheduled readings.
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I finally met Gerald a couple of nights later at the Cafe Lena Open Mike. His author photo on the back of A Thing About Language was such a patent send-up that I wasn't much surprised to find him smaller, grayer and tweedier than the dust jacket presentation implied. I automatically shifted into a confrontation mode out of some horribly conceived misjudgment. "You misspelled Susan Dey's name in your poem," I accused, referring to the Partridge Family TV star. I had never even watched the damn show my partner Linda had pointed it out to me.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said in a regretful tone, "You got an earlier version. I fixed that later."
After a lot of hindsight, it seems to me that my relationship with Gerald set itself on a certain adversarial track at that moment. My mouth can be my worst enemy sometimes.
Things went better the rest of the evening, however. Gerald read a set, much to our delight, in his slightly reedy, precise, back-eastish delivery. We wound up out on the sidewalk in front of the cafe, gabbing fifteen to the dozen. I praised Flaco Jimenez's renderings of elegant Tex-Mex sentimentality, "Soy un prisoniero de amor," while Gerald joyously pumped an air accordian.
As the show was beginning to wind down and we headed with Jim Haining for the car, I said we hoped Gerald would follow Jim's lead and move out here permanently. Gerald said he was indeed planning to move out our way.
"Do you have work lined up? You going to teach or something?"
"Oh dear, no. I escaped academia twenty years ago."
"Right on." I shoved a couple of recent Burns-influenced manuscripts at him. "We need more people like you."
Odd as it might seem, I was sincere.
DARts Archives Inde
Says writer Douglas Spangler about these illustrated tiles: "Gerald got together with Paul Lambert, who was a foreman at a yuppie decorative tile factory. They did a run of tiles on which Gerald did brush paintings shortly before he died, and put them on sale at Second Story Books, where Gerald pulled shifts sometimes. I bought a couple, and then after he died, bought ALL the unsold ones. They're not all great Gerald art, but the concept is nifty.
since Nov 08
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