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I hope you’ll enjoy Missoula–it’s an interesting place to live for a lot of reasons, particularly as the locus for various collisions and overlaps– like the “redstate” libertarian / progressive-environmentalist overlap, and the liberal conservationist / hunter-fisher overlap, and the semi-wilderness animal habitat / suburban-urban development overlap, and so forth and so on. Makes the East Coast seem positively banal. [Youna Kwak in a 1/15/08 email]
I think Missoula is a great little town — it’s also where I got the largest audience of my life, debating Baudrillard in front of 600 people. [Ron Silliman in a 3/5/08 email]
Do poetry readings represent the dying or the mourning? Do they affirm the power of community? Or do they affirm the total indifference the world feels towards community, i.e. affirming the futility of gathering? [Brandon Shimoda in a 5/14/08 email]
I just spent four months at the University of Montana as the Richard Hugo Visiting Poet, teaching two classes. Before coming to Missoula, population 60,000, I knew next to nothing about it. The temperature was -4F when I arrived, but it was a dry cold and not really that bad. Except for a compact, walkable downtown, the town seemed spread out, a suburban sprawl surrounded by snowy mountains, smooth and moderately sloped, not rugged and vertical like those on Montana postcards. Arriving from flat eastern Pennsylvania, I thought they were dramatic enough. Say Montana and many people will think of General Custer, Evel Knievel and the Unabomber, but David Lynch was also suckled, awed and (de)formed by it. Born in Missoula, Lynch remembers growing up in the Northwest Inland Empire:
My father was a scientist for the Forest Service. He would drive me through the woods in his green Forest Service truck, over dirt roads, through the most beautiful forests where the trees are very tall and shafts of sunlight come down and in the mountain streams the rainbow trout leap out and their little trout sides catch glimpses of light. Then my father would drop me in the woods and go off. It was a weird, comforting feeling being in the woods. There were odd, mysterious things. That’s the kind of world I grew up in.
There are bars all over downtown Missoula, several to a block. You can start your evening at Charlie B’s, with its impressive gallery of heads, mostly of white men. Mounted in black and white by Lee Nye, they appear in a hopped up glow, wall-eyed, beer-battered and in a fedora, Stetson or baseball cap, often laughing, relieved and a little proud, perhaps, to have made it into middle age without leaving a chunk of themselves a dozen time zones away, Pusan, Khe Sanh, Fallujah or Kandahar, or just around the corner. After two Trout Slayers, stroll over to the Old Post for a crappy order of fish and chips, or the Oxford, where a bowl of canned chili is advertised as “best in the universe,” where chicken gizzards have been replaced by free wi-fi, and the blackjack table is always grimly engaged each evening. Round ’bout midnight and you feel like dancing? Then stagger to the Union Bar, a throw-down joint where good ol’ boys, jocks and alternative types can all get plastered, crank the slot machines, shoot pool and fall down together. (“Those who were strange born, / Those who’ll die tomorrow, / Dance here today”–Stanley Kunnitz, and I quote from memory, hopefully without messing up his linebreaks.)
Quite by chance, I ran into an older, soft-spoken gentleman who introduced himself as Eric. It turned out he was Eric Newhouse, Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave. I haven’t read it but here’s a Newhouse take on boozing in Montana:
Hot off the dance floor, a young man in a white cowboy hat stands beside a woman perched on a barstool. She glances around, then begins unbuttoning his denim shirt and nuzzling his chest. Embarrassed, he flushes and backs away.
Beside them, a middle-age man is asleep, the brim of his black cowboy hat just resting on the bar. Beside his head is his beer bottle.
“We’re going to let him sleep until we close,” says the barmaid, Laurene Lawson. “Then we’ll escort him out of here, make sure he’s OK and get him a cab if he needs one.”
With that, the band winds it up for the evening and the lights come on.
“There’s a point where you have to exercise self-control,” says Page Lutes of Bozeman, looking down at the sleeper. “When you can’t maintain control, you’ve lost it. And it takes a lot of control sometimes to maintain it.”
Off the dance floor comes a younger couple. They begin to arouse the sleeper. Finally, they get him to his feet and begin to lead him out of the bar.
About halfway to the door, however, he lurches into a young woman and pinches her butt.
Without hesitation, she whirls him around, crouches down, and bites the label off the rear pocket of his jeans. Laughing, she stands with the label between her teeth.
“We don’t have enough places to loiter, squares and parks where people can just hang out without spending money. People derive pleasure from just watching each other. It’s a natural need! In this culture, a bar is about the only place where you can socialize. That’s one reason why alcoholism is so rampant,” I ranted to Newhouse. He agreed but pointed out that in Montana, this problem is exacerbated by war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Of all the states, Montana has the highest ratio of active-duty recruits and ranks 2nd for military veterans (14.3% of the population). Once among the wealthiest, it’s now one of the poorest, with 70% of its children on Food Aid. Jared Diamond’s book about societal collapse begins with a chapter on Montana.
A week ago, after the last meeting of my graduate poetry-writing workshop, I went with half of the students to the Double Front, known for its fried chicken and deep-fried battered balls of mac and cheese, served with a thin blue cheese dipping sauce. Drinking pitchers of Belgian beer, we shot the shit and heard Iowan Chris Alexander recount his experiences working for a 42-year-old quadriplegic, a man who had had a stroke at 19. With his mother’s or Chris’ help, he reconnected with life and inspired himself by watching porn videos. “You’d place his hand there, insert the film, push play, then wipe him up after about half an hour.” What a sweet mother! Once, she rented a gay film by mistake. Chris’ starting wage was $9/hr, raised to $15 finally. Chris also told us about an uncle (by marriage) who served four tours in Vietnam, returning with a steel palate, a knife wound on the side–”That hurted the most… I killed the bastard.”–shrapnel-riddled thighs, one less nut and one more asshole.
“What do you do with an extra asshole?” New Mexican Lisa Schumaier asked.
“Did you see this extra asshole, Chris?” I inquired professorially.
“Yes, when I was a child, he showed it to me,” Chris said.
“You already have enough stories for a lifetime,” I opined. “The trick is to get them all down.” Chris is 24-years-old.
“Sometimes I wish I could go to prison so I would have all the time to write.”
A few days later, at Flippers, a bar in two double-wide trailers, welded together, I counseled Chris as we divided a pitcher of local amber, “After leaving school, you must learn how to hoard your time, you must force yourself to stay home while others are out drinking. That’s sacrifice! Otherwise, when will you find time to write?” I drained mine, poured myself a fresh mug, “But you can’t stay inside all the time, or you won’t have anything to write about. You must pace your drinking into old age…” My graduate students told me the biggest time waster among undergraduates, those they themselves were teaching, was not bar-hopping but hours being fixated by a screen, engaged with FaceBook, internet porn or some video game. “They don’t even get trashed!” At the Break Espresso, a coffee house popular among the Y (me) generation, most patrons sit alone, intent on a laptop, reading and typing conversations instead of hearing them. Some of these me pods were also earbudded to a billion songs, with a gazillion more coming. It makes you want to exhume Richard Hugo, who was a master at juggling his drinking and writing routines.
I also admire how Hugo claimed his turf, made himself an authority and integral part, a folk icon almost, of his inland empire. One of my students, Matthew Kaler, was inspired to become a poet after reading these lines on Hugo’s grave: “BELIEVE YOU AND I SING TINY / AND WISE AND COULD IF WE HAD TO / EAT STONE AND GO ON,” from the poem “Glen Uig”. Kaler was raking leaves at the Missoula cemetery as punishment for (underaged) drinking and driving. The founder of the University of Montana’s writing progam, Hugo wrote that “a creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.” And one of the first, I suspect, for a sensitive, poetically-inclined Montana kid, which makes Missoula a natural magnet for him and many other dreamers, misfits and malcontents. (I should add that the rest of Montana can’t be too bad if it had the wisdom to elect the astute and straight-talking Brian Schweitzer as governor.) Take 24-year-old Travis Sehorn. Born in Wyoming, he’s spent the last 13 years in Missoula. A lead singer for various rock and folk bands, Sehorn’s also the author of these unpublished poems:
- I’d be a good father -
digging a hole to take
care of my children
antique water buffalo
2 mason jars of filthy
milk: 3 dirty ginger
snaps: 5, one foot
long strips of dog:
7 holes, deeper than
before for their children:
1002 condoms to save
them: 1 aspirin for nothing:
3 pairs of shit: no pairs
kurt or craig
a hole is hole
for a 60:40 homosexual
reverend — church
of the lost dog
debuting the new play
“the continuing saga
of colleen and murphy:
episode 12, lost at sea”
its a good distraction
from your boredom
with 43 year old lady thighs
–a farmer, mongoose killer,
pill inspector, pill tester–
those help but don’t define.
the starship enterprise tattooed
on the prick of the farmer-
the power-screw gun
method of mongoose death-
signing up for drug testing
for the drugs instead of the money-
just as much
as a vagina
or a mangina
A cultural oasis with an attitude, Missoula is certainly happening. Having a vital local scene is very important for a younger poet. With this audience, he can test his unpublished work and receive the encouragement to go on. A poet shoud be a provincial and a cosmopolitan. If he hasn’t traveled, he has no basis for comparisons, but if he’s not intimate with any place, he’s just a tourist passing through. Poetry readings in Missoula are well and enthusiastically attended, with most organized by Brandon Shimoda, a Brooklyn transplant who also edits Cutbank and co-hosts a weekly poetry radio show. A month ago, I emailed Shimoda four questions: 1) You are a central figure in a very vital poetry community in Missoula. Please give us an overview of your organizational activities. How long have you been doing these? 2) The internet allows poets to be more global, to make friends across the globe. Some may think they do not need to pay attention to what happens locally. How important is it to have a local poetry scene? Why do we need it at all? 3) Before you came to Missoula, you lived in Brooklyn. What are the differences between these two poetry communities? What are the disadvantages, advantages of living in a smaller city or provincial town? 5) Seeing how much you give to the community, a cynic will assume that there must be some hidden benefits. Are there?
Brandon Shimoda’s response:
[...] In sitting down to answer your questions, I was delving into a body of thinking that seemed completely embryonic, to my mind anyway — pure flesh, no bones, not quite limbs yet. So, I thought through the questions, and ultimately felt like any answer I could provide would be mush, and that ultimately, I have no idea why I do what I do, except for some basic aneurysm that keeps widening. Here, however, are my thoughts (more questions, really), and I would love to hear your thoughts in return. I hope this reaches you well. Take care,
I wonder, Linh, is it better to be the soil or the worm? Is it better to be the worm or the castings? Is it better to be the pile or the fork? Is it better to be the ground or the sun? It is better to be the seed or the shit?
I wonder too, as I have been dwelling for the last two months on your questions related to poetry and the communities that form around poets, if not exactly their poems, their “poetry,” and I have been wondering what the value of these communities are, what value is, in general, and what we do once we’ve determined—perhaps arbitrarily, perhaps with an abacus of nostrils strung on a rack of stretched tendons—what the value of these communities are, i.e where do we go from these calculations?
This dwelling has crippled me, which seems a sorry state during this election year, in which we’ve spent the last interminable-seeming nine months or so, watching balloon animals dance over gusts of dry air. Yes, isn’t community the constructive opposite of the race to lay waste to right(s) and reason? Isn’t community finger revolution on an organic micro-scale, functioning locally so as to evade the effects of a comprehensively unsustainable and debilitating global economy? Are communities aiming to be ataractic counter-options in their evasions? Or, are they the nightmarish grid itself, ultra-subject to the most rampant forms of perilous governance? Are communities vulnerable or impermeable? Are they open or closed systems? Are they rejections or perfections of? Are they the first suckers of an unwieldy jungle of political misdeed? Or are they the rhizomatous roots pressing ever deeper into the earth, never mind the rupture, let us multiply, subterraneously? Or, rather, who cares? What does this have to do with poems? What does anything have to do with poems? Are poems improved by their having been conceived and considered through a community’s generosity and commitment? Or, is community a system of mirrors through which the poem is but a posing artifact, a relic mistaken for pudding? Or, does the value of a poem reside in the thinking it incites? Or, are poems themselves incited thinking? Or, maybe, what do poems have to do with anything if they are incapable of considering the polis, society, our own neighbors? Like, what are your neighbors’ names? [And by this I am asking you: what are the names of your ten closest neighbors, in order of proximity to you?] Or, rather, what are my neighbors’ names? There is the guy who helped us cut a fallen box elder off our curb; we reimbursed him with a 30-pack of Natural Ice; what is his name? Kurt? Trevor? Daniel? Booker? There is the older man whose wife just died; he grows grapes. What is this older man’s name? Joseph? Alfredo? Hans? What was his wife’s name? Gertrude? Eloise? Patricia? Is this my community, or do I seek community among individuals who bend themselves with equal weight to the flowering of blood in an otherwise cohesive, illuminated face? When I lived in Brooklyn—and this goes back to one of the questions you originally posed, which was, to quote, “Before you came to Missoula, you lived in Brooklyn. What are the differences between these two poetry communities? What are the disadvantages, advantages of living in a smaller city or provincial town?”—I was obsessed with the dead pigeons scattered around my neighborhood in Williamsburg, in the streets surrounding the Tribeca Oven bakery, bloated as they were with risen dough. Each night, the bakers would dump the unused dough into the dumpster on the street, to which the pigeons would flock. In the morning, and as the day warmed, the pigeons, wandering sluggishly, would silently explode, the dough having risen in their digestive systems, shattering their hearts. Also, I love the movie Japón, directed by the Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas. There is a scene in which a man among a group of construction workers—I think they are construction workers; I don’t quite remember—is singing. I can’t paraphrase the scene in any useful way, except to say that it is vertiginous and uncomfortable yet powerful and inexorable—might this be the ideal community or community effect? A sense of disequilibrium rising to counter a pervading equilibrium that allows us to maintain ourselves as so even-keeled—what a wonderful trait—and compliant? Or horrific because verging away from any secure contact we might have with an already hazardous plane of existence? And, what does the community have to do with these sensations? Do we require a community in order to feel the elasticity of sensation, to be brought into a deeper understanding of our own discomfort, fallibility, idiosyncracy, mortal splendor? Do other people—as objects, images, things—reflect our own grievous and/or desirous shapes and sensibilities? And, anyway, how do poetry readings fit into this crush? Do poetry readings represent the dying or the mourning? Do they affirm the power of community? Or do they affirm the total indifference the world feels towards community, i.e. affirming the futility of gathering? Though, what is “the world”? Is there anything actually appreciable about “the world” enough for us to consider it in anything but an abstract, who-gives-a-fuck sort of way? As with so much current lamentation over the decay of our linguistic faculties, as a world, as a nation, as people—do poetry readings—do community gatherings—require dissolution and decay, require crisis, in order to function meaningfully at all? Aren’t we compatriots—don’t we love each other and make unreasonable sacrifices for each other—because we stand, together, against something, some thing? Or is it because we like what we see and we want to get naked? Or, don’t communities strengthen the faculties of individuals against an astoundingly predisposition for fascism and fascist behavior and banding? If there were no war, would anyone have anything to talk about with total strangers? Would we be able to approach each other blindly in the street and whip up a rhetorical froth so thick the pigeons mistake us for dumpsters and start pecking our buttons? Or is it not the war that calls community into action, but a propensity to rally a tribunal on every corner, in every fragrant bush, despite the context of the day? Rather, isn’t there something comforting about knowing that right now, somewhere, in some art gallery, there is a poetry reading in progress—that poems are being read, that audiences are listening intently? Or, is the audience distracted from any intent, both by a sense of perceptible, if temporary, community, and the nagging desire to jump through the front window, shattering the glass into a million ears of perfect noise, and run into the cauldron of the setting sun—at least then one’s fate is known. Is it preferable to have a way out—that the poetry reading builds an escape into itself? Or, like community perhaps, relies upon self-sufficiency, regardless of extenuating circumstances, i.e. we just fend for ourselves, shut the door. Though, isn’t there something wonderful about a poetry reading gone wickedly awry? Isn’t it worth it to sit through the horrid lines for the incredible ones? Or, the incredible lines for the profound misjudgments? Are there not innumerable ways that life is radically unbearable, and everything we do just a symptom of a need to stave off a fierce and fearsomely selfish circulatory system? Or, to think back to the doughy streets of Brooklyn, maybe the scattering of exploded pigeons is the ideal community—maggots hung up in the pigeon’s beaks, reminding us, as human beings, of something particular, something about the people we surround ourselves with, or about the people we surround? Isn’t it nice to be reminded?
—overstuff a form past satiety, past embarrassment, until the form is new as not before. Let the new form out under the sun, and wait as the overstuffing rises. If it does not explode, at least the heart will, and by replacing the heart with a different and, perhaps, untested organ of similar contractions and texture, you will have bested death, temporarily—or maybe, as the fragment of dough still clutching the beak, is worth behaving as if there is no turning back, i.e. death has already swept past; use the silence—
I think that an ideal community—if an ideal community could said to exist or potentially exist—is one that does not name itself, that exists entirely without note, without warning, without coordinates, without a plan. The lesser, the more invisible, the more invulnerable, the more powerful—the soil or the worm or the castings or the compost or the shit? Which is “better”? Or, is the point that they all feed the same sustainable process? What does a poet care about that the average citizen does not? And where are the poems, exactly, in “poetry”? And where is the poetry? And yes, what are the disadvantages/advantages of living in a smaller city or provincial town? I’m curious what your thoughts are on this, having recently ended your time here in western Montana. I don’t know, Linh—I don’t know. I do know, however, this, and this by way of a final note on my time in Brooklyn, and the advantages of living here: I love fast-food fried chicken—Kennedy, Palace, Crown, especially—KFC, PFC, CFC. While living in Brooklyn, I attended exactly zero poetry readings, though I would attend, at least once a week, a glassed-in, fast-food fried chicken outlet—yes, outlet. We don’t have these in Missoula. The culture that I missed by not attending any readings I more than made up for by walking across the park to the closest PFC. These visits sufficed. Meals just might be the highest form of willful and essential community gathering—perhaps even if a person prefers to eat alone. Maybe all the work, all the organizing, all the circular, self-serving conversation and debate, all the diagrams fit over the squirming flesh—are simply to keep the self awake enough to witness the firestorms writ in the complex rain of the unconsidered self, and that nobody, anywhere, really wants to write—why would anyone WANT to write?—really wants to lift a finger, really wants to peel the eyelid back from a decomposing corpse—the visage in the diamond saying, kindly, softly, sufficiently enough, Let the community die.
[All photos taken by me in Missoula. Photo 3: Lucas Farrell and Greg Hill, Jr. Photo 4: Matthew Kaler and Lisa Schumaier. Photo 5: Chris Alexander and Scott Jones. Below is a YouTube video of Blood Factor 5's bassist, Jason McMacken, at the 24th annual Testicle Festival in Rock Creek, just down the road from Missoula.]