The Operating System

6th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 13 :: Douglas Luman on Jackson Mac Low

HAPPY POETRY MONTH, FRIENDS AND COMRADES!

For this, the 6th Annual iteration of our beloved Poetry Month 30/30/30 series/tradition, I asked four poets (and previous participants) to guest-curate a week of entries, highlighting folks from their communities and the poets who’ve influenced their work.

I’m happy to introduce Janice Sapigao, Johnny Damm, Phillip Ammonds, and Stephen Ross, who have done an amazing job gathering people for this years series! We’re so excited to share this new crop of tributes with you. Hear more from our four guest editors in the introduction to this year’s series.

Hungry for more? there’s 150 previous entries from past years here! You should also check out Janice’s piece on Nayyirah Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at it.

This is a peer-to-peer system of collective inspiration! No matriculation required.
Enjoy, and share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

WEEK TWO :: CURATED BY JOHNNY DAMM
PROPOSITION:

Every time a WRITER sees another WRITER on the street, WRITER # 1 yells the following question:
“Who are you reading?”
WRITER # 2 answers, also yelling, and at the first word, EVERYONE on the street stops walking, presses hands over mouths of cooing/crying babies, slams down car brakes and hurriedly unrolls windows.

EVERYONE listens, the world not allowed to resume until WRITER # 2 stops yelling.

SMALL REVISION:
Keep everything exactly the same, except make sure that WRITER # 2 is a talented writer, a fascinating writer, that WRITER # 2 is the present or future of what literature should be.

PROPOSITION:
Hush, y’all. Listen as Colette Arrand, Stephen Emmerson, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, E.G. Cunningham, Douglas Luman, Travis Sharp, Raquel Salas Rivera, and Terri Witek yell into the street.

Johnny Damm is the author of Science of Things Familiar (The Operating System, 2017) and three chapbooks, including Your Favorite Song (Essay Press, 2016), and The Domestic World: A Practical Guide (Little Red Leaves, forthcoming). His work has appeared in PoetryDenver Quarterlythe RumpusDrunken Boat, and elsewhere. Visit him online at johnnydamm.com.

DOUGLAS LUMAN on JACKSON MAC LOW :: BEING THERE

“…no matter how many times I read it, every word remains a surprise—the diction more contemporary and alive than ever. Even as I retype it in the current American political climate, its meaning transforms and recreates itself in ways it only can by being here, now.”

Like the making of some of his most exciting works, I found Jackson Mac Low seemingly by accident. But, what his work taught me about poetry wasn’t this aleatoric, chance-based nature, the “makingway” (to borrow a Mac Low term) for which he is best known in some circles.

Perhaps the most salient quality of his work is echoed in every remembrance written in the wake of Mac Low’s death in 2004: to know his work, you simply had to “be there.” Charles Bernstein wrote of Mac Low’s performative style; Jerome Rothenberg’s poem in memory of Low depicts what being with him was like; Leslie Scalpino writes of being in the same “wild night day night” and “being in it” with the silence created by the poet’s passing. For all of these poets (and many more) the idea of Mac Low’s not being there spoke profoundly.

But, I am not writing to mourn a poet, though I would have loved to have been in the same room with him (though, I doubt I would have said a word). Rather I write this to demonstrate what I learned from Mac Low in absentia: the quality of a poem being there, the quality of presence of a mind. To read Mac Low is to be there with him, your act of reading contingent with his of writing.

Late in his career, Mac Low, while not repudiating his earlier emphasis on chance operations, adapted his poets to one of such contingency. In his 1991 collection Twenties, he shifted to terminology such as “intuitive” composition to explain how his thoughts on non-egoistic poetry had developed. Later he gave more definition to the lexicon of the “contingent,” writing in “Poetry and Pleasure” (an essay prefacing the 2009 collected Thing of Beauty edited by the equally innovative Anne Tardos) that his process had become one of freedom to “use [his] imagination, and acoustic, semantic, and other skills as any poet” arising from the moment of composition wherever and whenever he composed, whether at a desk or on a plane.

Looking back over his long and prolific career, this apparently new definition of his practice was always present. Whether in the Twenties, his various “word events,” “light” poems, or any of his other compositions, when reading a Mac Low poem I always feel like I am there; the utterance is always fresh, vibrant, and new. I exist in one of his poems like a live studio audience whether his speakers perform for me or whether he seems to be letting me watch him write the very poem on the page as the process executes.

Mac Low’s ways of making writing a form of reading cracked open the possibilities of a poem as a true “event,” the sense that the poem unfolds not in the processes of creation, but those of reading

In this way, Mac Low’s poems feel like a human computer code rather than the procedural, cold, algorithmic sense of the apparatus around the terminology of “machine language.” When composing a poem using Mac Low’s “Diastic” reading methods, first automated in collaboration with Charles Hartman, one has a sense of (as Mac Low once wrote about his ideal reader) crafting works which are not “vehicles merely for the vision of the individual poet but constructions or event-series which allow each reader or hearer to be visionary.” For me, Low’s ways of making writing a form of reading cracked open the possibilities of a poem as a true “event,” the sense that the poem unfolds not in the processes of creation, but those of reading—two senses which, for most, are distinctly different, but are, for Mac Low, very alive an ever-occurring in simultaneity.

Encountering his work as a younger and reasonably more directionless poet permitted me license to write wildly, almost always going to the brink of failure using nothing more than the force of will to bring together sense and source materials speaking to each other across time and space. I felt like I imagine an athlete might feel coming off the bench in a high-stakes match, always feeling unequal to the task before me, but always willing to show up to play.

I close with one of the first of the Diastic poems that I encountered—Mac Low’s reading through of Moby Dick using the phrase “call me Ishmael.” Looking through the poem, you’ll pick up the rules to the game that Mac Low is playing at, but no matter how many times I read it, every word remains a surprise—the diction more contemporary and alive than ever. Even as I retype it in the current American political climate, its meaning transforms and recreates itself in ways it only can by being here, now.

Call Me Ishmael

Circulation. And long long
Mind every
I shore, having especially little

Cato a little little
Me extreme
I sail have me an extreme little

Cherish and left, left,
Myself extremest
It see hypos and myself and extremest left,

City a land. Land.
Mouth; east,
Is spleen, hand mouth, an east, land.

 

 Douglas Luman’s poetry and prose has been published in magazines such as Salamander, Ocean State Review, Rain Taxi, and Prelude. He is Production Director of Container, Art Director at Stillhouse Press, Head Researcher at appliedpoetics.org, a book designer, and digital human.

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