Friday, August 31, 2007



Traffic: A Publication of Small Press Traffic, Issues 1 and 2, 2005-07, Edited by Elizabeth Treadwell
(Small Press Traffic, San Francisco, 2005-07)


Theories and opinions about editing a literary journal are diverse, and an ever on-going public discussion continues whenever a new journal starts up. Willingly or not, Traffic (issues 1 and 2) edited by Elizabeth Treadwell, from out of the Executive Director’s office at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco, has entered into the conversation. And it’s about time, as it is always a pleasure to see signs that a journal is willing to go in more than one direction and not stick to a single content or format from issue to issue. This allows for improvement and surprise, and indeed, the second issue of Traffic improves upon the first. Treadwell removes a lot of unnecessary front matter and allows the work, itself, to be immediately presented. The first issue reads almost like a high school yearbook when opened, it’s a bit too sweet and friendly in its welcoming the reader in, as well as overgenerous to its cover artist with an extended “Artist’s Statement,” while the second is more professional and serious-looking.

The poems in Issue 1 are, without doubt, its highlights. Stephanie Young’s celebratory “Poem for Small Press Traffic’s 30th Anniversary” opens the “Poetry and Prose” section. Her fast moving inventory of historical reference points from the year of birth she shares with the institution reads like a groovy chuck and jive update of Frank O’Hara. She opens with a list of whom and what else is also born that year:

It’s 1974, quick, you are
getting born, also Leonardo di Caprio
and Jewel. Floppy disk drives, People Magazine,
Dungeons & Dragons, Happy Days, internet,
Institute of Physics Library, Super Pong, Chinatown, Sterling Bank,
Kate Moss, Supermodel! Nobody gets the Pulitzer for fiction or drama but Robert Lowell does.

“Robert Lowell” stands in for “poetry,” as much as he represents what in 1974 was deemed Pulitzer material, things haven’t changed much in 30 years as Young’s poem remind us.

Anne Sexton dies on October 4.
Karen Silkwood dies on November 12.
Nixon resigns.
George W. Bush is discharged from
the U.S. Air Force Reserve. They’re putting
carnations in their guns in Portugal and bombs
go off in pubs, Dublin, the Tower of London, 107 meters
underground, India’s testing a Peaceful Nuclear Explosive.

The beautiful-the famous-the tragic-the corrupt, death and bombs going off, bombs being tested: a dangerous world.

It’s all happening now
Patty Hearst with a rifle in her hands
John Lennon is still alive
the oil embargo is over
Sonny and Cher are over
but the Talking Heads are getting together.
The Ramones are getting together.
Japan is getting together.

Stephanie Young is definitely getting it together. It’s difficult to think of another poem better suited to open what will hopefully be an ongoing enterprise for the organization, “started way back in 1974,” which continues to be an integral force of the experimental poetics community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Young, stepping to as a fresh member, keeps the rhythm of her lines going, the listing of historical births a surprising delight, right up to the end.

Grateful Dead unleashes the wall of sound
the UN grants observer status to the PLO
Rover Thomas and the Krill Kill songs
UPC codes
it all started way back in 1974:
walking for exercise
pipeline construction
over 12 million donuts
the barrier
the project
King Crimson
Sears Tower
the Australian Forum for Textile Arts
my Queen collection
the International WONCA news
grass Oil for Men By Javan
the NewMath, where one must be
wary of empty formalism,
by, being, multiplactors.

Following Young, Will Alexander’s dark, surreal testimonial, “The Blood Penguin,” engages in an entirely different manner. “I am the carnivore / the hounded night walker / searching for my wings under scattered glass,” it’s not easy to understand who the person, or thing, Alexander describes is, it’s also not necessary. Alexander is tapping into a powerful, mytho-spiritual force that language yields up from deep within. A global, even inter-stellar, consciousness, “it says / I am of Africa & the sea coast / of Ghana & the Seychelles / of insular breakage near the Azores // yet it states my non-placement / my cavern / my debilitating refuge // not even a dwelling beneath the stars / as etheric camp base on Saturn.” As always with Alexander’s poems, the reader is taken on a thrilling ride of auditory splendor, of which the meaning, perhaps, is not obvious yet the feeling that language is being presented in fresh, world-thought provoking ways refuses denial.

Margaret Christakos’ work displays a playful ease with bringing words together and delighting in the lushness of the evocative phrase, “Tender repartee taunts / if in a cockle is your conch / gush up mister” (“The Groin Area (Wet Version)”). An opening that catches the reader’s attention, if the title didn’t, and her interrogation of the possible acts these phrases capture carries through to the end of the poem,
The groin area wetter to roam
repartee still and tender
such minstrel speech—
shush shush hush
about get else gush on lever us
with several words of advice
Gender us
gentle shelter overhead:
pear-shaped bulb a pulse
or else no lesser.

It is clear that the intent is not mere titillation.

Small Press Traffic is also supportive of experimental prose writing, the writers involved in events held there, being just that, “writers,” the line between prose and poetry continually blurred. On many occasions this produces a difficult reading to sit through, but when the writing holds the listener’s interest, the evening’s enjoyable. Thankfully, Lise Erdrich’s prose is capable at times of being a good example of the latter. There is the resistance to being classifiable, is this memoir-mini-story-or what?
When my cousins came back once I told them it was easy to see
they were hard-core regulars in here, they were going to be losers
and throw away their opportunity to get an education. They just
laughed and started singing, “Go My Son” but the words were
all changed like, Go my son, leave the reservation, go my son, you’re on
Relocation, go my son, take your medication.
Finally we left and started
walking down the street to somebody’s house nearby where there
was a party, like they promised in the first place. This car full of
white people came speeding down the street and they swerved up
alongside us and stuck their heads out the windows and hollered
all at once “HAIRY BUFFALO!” and I thought I was going to be
a hate crime but they kept on going. My cousins explained that we
were being invited to a party.
(“Hairy Buffalo”)

Erdrich combines a delicate flirtation with amusing aspects of the scene alongside forthright honesty of lines that catch the reader up, “I thought I was going to be a hate crime.” Erdrich keeps her lines clean and crisp, leaving the impression she knows all too well the dangers she addresses and grounds her text in the occasions which inspired the writing of it.

The selection of poems from Mark McMorris’ “Letter for K & Poems for Someone Else,” demonstrate a lyrical drive bent on beauty, caught in the in-between luster of the desire towards the beloved “Other.”
(a poem)
               dis poem shall say nothing new
               dis poem shall speak of time

The larks animate the morning with their signals
to each other that I overhear and cannot decode
draw me from the doorway to the street, to be one
among several musics that score the city I love.
Today the Lord dies again; a scholar writes in Greek
his story of mystery; the translator comes to Antioch
to start on the final book, the one that was lost for good.
I breathe the same air and sound of voices falling
onto a page that cannot record the thing itself
how your face is close to my thought, as close as a breath
that I still listen to, a translator who keeps very still.
In one or another folio on the shelf, it says that I look
at train schedules and take steps to book your flight
dressed up for a meeting at a café. It is a volume
I want to read at once, to conclude, and start over,
a book that meets a scholar, a scholar that meets a train,
a train that meets a woman, a woman that meets me.
But this poem is like a war that never ends, this poem
has no closure, it unravels as I write, it starts again
on the Pontus Euxine, on an island, and then it says:

An epistolary sequence, as the title indicates, these poems are held in the eternal stasis of lyrical containment. “And then it says:” which is to say, it keeps on going, “this poem has / no closure,” caught up in the swirl of the world “the larks animate.” McMorris, free or not, as any other, acknowledges the poem and moves forward in it. This is the lyric of nostalgia.

Charles Alexander’s “Pushing Water 23 for Jackson Maclow” is a moving tribute to the recently deceased older poet, structured similar to Maclow’s “Light Poems,” of which, it is reminiscent. The line “the movement of light through a prism” plays as a refrain throughout, gathering lines to it, almost ceremonially reminding, “it’s all part of the same light / it’s all part of the same light,” becoming a prayer, of sorts, for The Poem continuing past the page becoming The Life, “bloomsday light // French sonnet light // missing the light // beyond the light.”

Robert Fitterman (with David Buuck)’s essay, “Identity Theft: My subjectivity” succeeds in asking lots of good questions, as he states, it is more of “a Q and Q than a Q and A,” and troubles only when he attempts to somewhat provide answers. His acute comments on the fluid sense of identity brought about by aggressive marketing in our ever-increasingly consumer culture of the last three decades is appetizing: “This 70s splintered youth, especially in the suburbs, struggled against and identified with a new consumer culture that was both mercurial and superficial. It was an identity that was carefully engineered by marketing strategist[s] who foresaw the benefits of emptying one identity and refilling it with multiple identities.” Fitterman is accurate in pointing out the potential for a poetics of adaptation based upon a borrowing and blending of subjectivity,
a new prosody in this sense would necessarily mean not only a
rigorous rethinking of formal approaches to the commodity
aesthetics of consumer culture, but also would require a critical
engagement with the actual processes of content-gathering, textual
retrieval, research, culling, etc. What is the relationship between
sources and fragments, and the new forms that (re)articulate them?
How is context established, framed, or ‘staged’? Following Olson,
does our cultural weeding carry with it the soil and roots of historical
sedimentation? (in an active, and not nostalgic or fetishistic way?)

These are great questions, and the potential excitement of a rising generation of young poets already at work with the issues Fitterman raises is strongly apparent. The trouble arises in so far that there is the possible loss of this potential if one loses belief in the actual. Fitterman claims he likes “the personal,” he just doesn’t want it to be his “own,” which is fine, but don’t give up your stake in it. If, truly, “we have experienced the same with the same,” it’s hard to see any reason to bother defending the experience, or sharing it for that matter. Fitterman would do well to find himself an adage, such as, “all pop songs are lies, but the good ones you believe in,” and to trust in feeling, even if it isn’t his own.

Carol Mirakove’s, “Anxieties of Information,” suffers from poor textual formatting. She cites the work of numerous poets, with extended quotations, none of which are indented, making it a challenge in areas to decipher where her commentary picks back up and the work she’s quoting ends. Perhaps this is purposeful, to merge commentary and text, unfortunately it doesn’t work out very well. There is also the distracting nuisance of having the names of the writers she cites printed in bold. It is assumed that this is according to her wishes. If there is a good reason for it, the essay does not reveal it. By the end of reading through this piece, the reader is rather glad to be finished with all the confusion and is slightly annoyed that Mirakove’s “anxieties” have, however briefly, become her own.

There’s very little to be said for “The 10 Minute Hollywood.” This collaborative “play” written by Tanya Brolaski, Brent Cunningham, Dan Fisher, Kelly Holt & Cynthia Sailers, cruises in on the skirts of the now annual Small Press Traffic Poets Theatre and takes advantage of the snide humor towards Hollywood and popular culture that has become de rigeur in the works performed. Kevin Killian’s plays are the best of this style. What you get without his involvement tends towards the juvenile; while amusing in parts, there’s nothing original or worthwhile. This is the kind of writing best kept between friends having some fun, possibly distributed cheaply and on-the-go for distribution among each other and other small communities. It’s strikingly out of place with the best of the work in Traffic and demonstrative of just how bad the magazine might be without proper editing.

Each issue of Traffic contains an interview. The first is with poet and editor, Allison Cobb, the second with poet, artist and editor, Yedda Morrison (whose original art, “Bioposy #12,” adorns the cover). Interviews are absolutely necessary documents allowing for discoveries about an artist’s processes and life circumstances which the work does not convey, but relies upon and, often enough, is derived from. In the last decade’s boom of email barrage, an ever greater number of interviews have been published which are, in actuality, email exchange. An email exchange is not an interview, it is a correspondence. Elizabeth Treadwell acknowledges that her “interview” with Morrison occurred via email. Jane Sprague does not state whether or not her “interview” with Allison Cobb took place via email, but it suffers from too few questions and rather long, extended responses which tend to characterize such interactions. Call it old fashioned, but there’s something to sitting down in person with somebody and having a chat which email fails to live up to. Both Morrison and Cobb are doing fairly interesting work, these “interviews” do offer insight into them as individuals, but it would be pleasant to have the opportunity to see the results of a more thorough exchange. Nevertheless, if Cobb and Morrison continue on the paths they’re currently on, producing work that motivates and encourages others, there’s sure to be desire for the information these exchanges contain. Each brings additional value and depth to the individual issue in which it appears.

Issue 2 is chock full of engaging material. One improvement Treadwell has made is the addition of 100 pages over the 124 pages of issue 1, printed in a smaller, more scholarly font, which she then packs with worthwhile poems, essays, and an “Editor’s Forum: On poetry & women’s embodiment.” It’s fair to say that the title of the forum itself is the theme of the issue. All of the work is by women and provides, by example, a counterbalance, as well as response to, many of the statements made in the forum, which focus primarily on the SuicideGirls cover of a recent issue of Fence and the inclusion of some sexually charged photographs of women in a recent issue of Shiny. The debate in the forum is both appropriate and necessary. The work in the rest of the issue, when at its best, is inspiring and, at times, daring.

Alice Notley starts the issue off with a generous new selection from “Songs and Stories of the Ghouls: extract from The Book of Dead.” This is Notley writing in top form. None of this selection appears in her recent new and selected poems, Grave of Light, which also contains a portion from the same manuscript. The ancient Greek figure, Medea, makes numerous appearances, her story—of murdering her brother for the love of Jason only to later be spurned and murder her own children—gets reworked and inextricably interwoven with that of the narrator:
Medea ran with her children
She fled with them leaving the house where one must
accept the elaborate head in a box with its
silver and turquoise ornamentation as one’s own
civilization. This severed thought will do you good
No we are leaving you. Though it was reported
she killed her children and left alone since that story
took care of all of them. Medea entrusted herself with
the remnants of her culture, in an old box. What was her
culture? You say it was a dream, leading you on
I am the most destructive person alive because I
can’t bear the lies in your heart. Every murder attributed to her
had no victim but feelings, was an assault on the sanctity of your
language covering one with the white shit of pigeons in an airshaft.

Along with Medea, Notley reminds the reader she has “to tell you about ghouls, too.” The ghouls appear frequently and are appropriately, well, “ghoulish.” “In Dead,” which is the state the narrator writes from, everybody’s a ghoul. Turns out ghouls still pay attention to poetic form, all the while retelling Medea’s story, as well as calling their own into being, and the matters of the living don’t drop away.

Why kill anyone? There are much more radical things to do.

I need to write in verse for a moment
effecting a temporary change. Can you
feel it? I’d always rather write a poem.
But I’m shaky, lacking in control. The murder
makes me nervous, this talk of my own death. No,
it’s more that I’m afraid prose won’t go deep enough.
It can’t solve the murder this time; because it didn’t pose
it, the deathly situation, in the first place
Poetry tells me I’m dead; prose pretends I’m not.

And yet I go on in prose.

In Dead, voices have begun to speak to me in old languages: it
sounded like Latin last time. In English a man’s voice said, “The prisons
are fragile.” All the prisons at this time are fragile, that is, the prisons of
form. He said as well, “Move on,” but I translate that as Use the fragility
for change.

Though “ghouls are amassing everywhere,” Notley continues to excite with her shifts of imaginary forms. What happens in an Alice Notley line drifts in the reader’s thoughts for days afterwards, there’s no shaking it. As Catherine Wagner notices in her perspective essay, “Leslie Scalapino, Alice Notley, and the Better-World Thought Experiment,” which directly follows the Notley selection, “Both Scalapino and Notley are conscious of the role of language in creating and reinforcing hierarchies and oppressions.” With her “ghouls” Notley continues to wage the good fight in her oh so lovely dark manner.

Joining Notley, Tonya Foster reacts against reinforcements of “hierarchies and oppressions” in the “role of language,” in her own way, posing an explorative experiment with memoir in the section presented here from her “A Mathematics of Chaos: Pay Attention to Where You At.” Several sections of which demonstrate her to be directly in the line of Gertrude Stein. By use of repetitive phrases and words, she opens her text to the free play of sound, making new meaning.


Foster also shares anecdotes from her childhood which demonstrate an early interest and awareness in the flexibility of possible meanings of language. An attention to the fact that it is how words are heard, determines meaning.
Once, my little cousin Amber asked my sister Briana where my sister
Chonda had moved to. “Indiana,” Briana explained. “Indiana?” Amber
responded bewildered. Thinking Briana hadn’t understood her, she
repeated her question. “In di ana,” Briana responded more slowly, in
her careful schoolteacher diction. Amber looked back and forth from
Briana to my sister Deanna. “How can Chonda be in Deanna?” Amber

The pleasure of being playful, yet direct, aware of the various dead end paths which proliferate the further the writing heads into unmapped territory; is the thrill these poets are sharing in. In her own poem, “There’s No Kindness,” Joanna Fuhrman shares her sense of her identity as poet:
in water vapor doing
what I am afraid to be

sure I could write
a love poem and appear

triumphantly dumb
or a business letter,

perfectly adroit, confident
a wingless fly scurrying

over an air conditioner
makes the afternoon

less than praise-worthy
to the fanatically clean,

but not, to me,
a veritable believer

in the inherent
glamour of error

In this “glamour of error” the poet achieves a role distinctly suited to her purposes. Many, if not all, the poets presented, share in a similar sense of purpose when it comes to the activity of writing. Fuhrman’s work totters on the edge of sliding too far over that edge of error, but manages to maintain a somewhat usefulness. Not every poet practicing in this same manner achieves the ability to stay away from the temptation of allowing the lines to wander off into self-indulgent nonsense. Fuhrman shows she has the good sense not to over-reach her abilities.

As Yedda Morrison tells Treadwell, “My poems come mostly from preoccupations with structures of power, from personal weaknesses, mass media addictions, points of desire and confusion.” It does not belittle the work to admit things which are true. Nada Gordon’s ecstatic “I LOVE MEN,” teases the tension of being radical, experimental, and feminist, with a boisterous ironic shout, “I wrote the meanest, silliest thing below about men. I’m so sorry. Please ignore. / Anyway, here’s why I love men. They are brave. I love men’s thighs, their hands; the small of their necks; I love men.” What makes Gordon’s poem work is that she truly does know what men love. She compiles a list that seduces as much as it scathes, “I love men for their strength. Sometimes it is that vein that bulges on the upper part… I love men for the way they give up everything but themselves for love. / I love men with big penis… and I love men’s hair.” She’s playful and jabbing,
Urgh, I love men with top hats and beautifully tailored tuxedos and immaculately polished shoes. I Love Men In Uniform I Love Men In Uniform Charm. I Love Firemen I Love Firemen Charm.
I love men in turbans.
I love men who wear fishnet and skirts. It’s just downright sexy,
I love men staring from buses in the next lane. Sometimes, my boyfriend will make me go out in a miniskirt without panties to go on an escalator.
I Love Men in Boots! That’s a whole lotta boots!

I love men, but they wear me out with all their confusing issues. One day
they say they love you and the next they see someone with a bigger ass.

I love men, muscles, sex, porn, and chocolate.

I love Men on Prozac. I love men on Prozac with their calm, James Dean
smiles and dreamy novelist eyes.

Of course I love men of all races…but, I have to admit I am completely
fascinated by Asian men. Japanese, Chinese, Korean…I love it all.

I love men. They are energetic, great at fetching and I love them. Darlings,
I love men, especially when they are silent, beautiful and have no panties.

I LOVE WIENERS And Jewels I love men Money Power And I love my sex Me and My sex And I love my sex Only Me and My sex La la la la la
la la la la..

Gordon acknowledges and confronts the ludicrousness of the Male gender at large. And she does so with glee: “I LOVE MEN!!! I LOVE MEN!!! I LOVE MEN!!!” There’s no blaming her.

At the heart of Issue 2, and a gem of an example of possible promise in the future for any “new poetics,” is Alicia Cohen’s “Lyric Creatures: New poetics and the Animal,” her exploration of various avenues available to poets via closer examination of the manner of communication between animals is precise and, on the whole, entirely heart-warming. Cohen grounds her argument in the philosopher Levinas:
According to Levinas, western metaphysics commits an ethical violence
against “being” because it approaches the world like a hunter who
demands of all things Reveal yourself to me. I will understand you, grasp
you. The violence of metaphysics is hidden beneath a cloak of scholarly
quiet and a kind of worldly remove but knowing the world, according to
Levinas, is always a predatory mode in which revelation is ultimately a
means to seize, control, and subjugate what is known. An ethical
philosophy, for Levinas, cannot involve a demand like: reveal yourself. An
ethical approach to being involves instead the offer of a greeting as a means
of opening a conversation. In this approach to knowing “what is” one
recognizes and respects the autonomy, the radical alterity, which is the face
of the Other. The philosopher in this approach does not expect (ever) to
penetrate, reveal, and grasp “what is” or the Other’s otherness. What is left
is the possibility of conversation. A conversation in which one is beholden
to the Other.

Cohen continues, describing how, for herself, “Poetry doesn’t serve to penetrate, reveal, or grasp otherness. Rather, it creates a space in which otherness can move— a place in which one can greet and open to and share a space with otherness.” Cohen is arguing for poets to find it worthwhile to look towards animal communication as a means of liberating the imagination.

William Carlos Williams, in his original preface to Kora in Hell, posed a similar possibility, citing St. Francis of Assisi,

I should like to make St. Francis of Assisi the patron saint of the United
States, because he loved the animals. The birds came to him not for
wheat but to hear him preach. Even the fish heard him.

The columns of the trees in his forests were a lesson to him; he looked
up between them and mingled with the animals as an equal.

Williams adds, “Nor do I think it is especially recorded that St. Francis tried to make the sparrows Christians. When the service was over each beast returned to his former habits.” Assisi did not convert animals to his own means. He did not attempt to exert control over them, so they were relaxed and comfortable in his presence. Assisi’s removal of his own interests aligns with Cohen’s own writing habits. As she states, “When I go to write I sit and just open to whatever moves through me to write. I try to follow what the writing has to tell me rather than use the writing as a mode of willed articulation.” Cohen is chasing down a means to imbibe the writing of poetry with a fresh perspective that challenges, and adds to, the preconceptions which grounded past poetics. Her pursuit contributes an approach that is both a wonder and a necessity as it rises above the squabbling connected with the numerous poetry scenes and settings of today’s world, not to mention the ludicrous violence of mistaken governments.

It is to be hoped that there will be many future issues of Traffic, the material getting better and better, as each issue continues to allow for change of direction and consistent striving after the best work happening in the contemporary moment. If Treadwell sets her sights right, she’ll broaden the net of potential contributors and keep up with a wide range of substance and format of the work presented. Transcription of panel discussions, for instance, whether they occur on the premises of SPT or not, would be terrific to see appear. Perhaps most promising about her editorial work so far is her ability not to lapse into merely publishing the work of readers from the SPT reading series, but continually reaching for examples from beyond immediate quarters. Subscriptions (faculty and librarians of Poetry Special Collections, take note—your library is lacking without Traffic) and/or memberships to Small Press Traffic (which include a copy of Traffic) are recommended as means to ensure the venture stays afloat.


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in the library at USF. Poems and chapbooks have been published by Auguste Press, Blue Book, Chain, Pompom, and Red Ant Press among others.


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