Douglas Piccinnini explores the possibilities of storytelling, in the way that the mind often archives memories: out of chronological sequence, missing 'facts', fallible, nostalgic, haunted."

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Douglas Piccinnini, Story BookThe Cultural Society, 2015.



Story Book envisions a new wave of storytelling through a series of narratives that swarm around the blurred edges of being and in a twisting of genres, confronts the complexities of loss and the violence of memory.




Haunting and strange, STORY BOOK obeys the rule in which our story is never finished.


"[Piccinnini] explores the possibilities of storytelling, in the way that the mind often archives memories: out of chronological sequence, missing 'facts', fallible, nostalgic, haunted." - Krisy Paredes


"STORY BOOK is powered by its insistence on what could be or what one could do, a bare could boiling up from its cold, existential cauldron into something exceedingly human. You could 1) die in a hermit's cave or 2) beat a stranger in your kitchen before dawn or 3) give a speech on the ecology of cannibalism. In Piccinnini's land of Could, everything is destined to start over, and with each chapter's recapitulation the reader is brought deeper into the act of eavesdropping, an ear to the universe as it compulsively begins again. It feels like reading bits of news on another planet through a wormhole over a stranger's shoulder. It's strange, and captivating, and you could go on reading it forever--if only it lasted that long."--Chris Martin


"In this book a series of delicately rendered stories begin--and, then, continually begin. If one imagines the strange happiness of first glancing at a watercolor image depicting the transformation of a person into an animal or monster, plant or object, that initial pleasurable confusion at what it is we see STORY BOOK returns us again and again to this region of (uneasy) excitement and exciting unease."--Lucy Ives


"STORY BOOK invites you into the opening pages of more than a dozen tales as violent and haunting as anything in Grimms. Again and again, and with a queasy intimacy, Piccinnini puts his readers directly in touch with the way of all flesh, the tendency of bodies to sour, rot, rip, stiffen, and decay. In doing so, he creates a lyricism of unrest and violence unlike anything in American fiction."--Chris Hosea


When confronted for the first time with the genre of “prose poetry,” any kindergarten student worth their salt will inquire why all fiction isn’t written with such attention to language. If, with a little more coaxing, prose can be made poetic, aren’t most writers just being lazy?
Douglas Piccinnini’s Story Book is not a book of prose poetry. But it does give an indication of what might happen when a novel is written from a poet’s point of view. The book is subtitled “A Novella,” but it’s easy to imagine other ways of characterizing Story Book.
This is a book of beginnings, a collection of stories that do not end. Each of the book’s 16 sections is a Chapter 1, and the stories themselves are linked mostly in their introspective narration, which hovers between descriptions of the surrounding physical world and evocations of the mental landscape of the narrator(s). There is a sense of personal insignificance here as the wide gap between intent and action is probed repeatedly. When the narrator of the book’s opening opening chapter says “I could begin if I could begin” he is not only echoing Samuel Beckett, whose Texts for Nothing is a dark touchstone for Story Book. He is also describing the mindset that pervades this book.
A book of story beginnings is not necessarily a book of false starts, and certainly not in this case. Instead, these chapters read like lines of flight, with various possibilities and directions outward stemming from a core subject which is the dreadful sense of helplessness and loss that hits us when we realize the unbridgeable gap between desire and outcome, between thought and speech, and between speech, interpretation and reaction from others. Like all of us, these narrators are watching themselves move through the world, bumbling, trying, trying again and trying not to blow it. A sense of astonishment, of a familiar world made stranger, is notable throughout the book, and due at all times to the sensitivity of the narrator and his desire to make these experiences and states of mind real by putting them into language.
There is a range of moods and uncanny situations in the book, from pure dread to humor, and they all feel lived. Take this internal monologue, which unfolds as the narrator is spitting out of his apartment window at people on the sidewalk:
My landlord at that apartment was an old Chinese woman named Sunny who was married to an old Jewish guy whose name I can’t remember, though I do remember one day I had my guitar out and I was playing and he came up and knocked on the door to ask me something. I couldn’t get up so good, so I just told him to come in. He let himself in and he saw my guitar and my leg propped up and I had my shirt off. He had a gravelly voice like Tony Bennett.
He said, “Hey, I can sing like Tony Bennett, why don’t you play and I’ll sing.”

But I don’t think that he really could, he just had a problem in his throat, but he sang acapella for a while anyway, while I just held the guitar silently in my hands.
Here reality, with all its strange detail, presses back against the language of the narrator, informing his thoughts. These moments of levity, and the richness of recalled detail throughout the book, make it compelling and concrete. In these moments, which are many, Story Book is more than prose poetry, more even than a novella, but is ultimately responsive and vibrant writing. That is perhaps where this book succeeds most: these are stories after all, and as any good yarn-spinner knows, you’ve got to keep people interested, through eclectic, electric detail and human interest. Piccinnini does that and more.
Douglas Piccinnini is best known as the author of poetry collections including Blood Oboe. The poet’s sensibility is clearly on display in these texts, which privilege language and tone over the usual architecture of plot and narrative arc. But where “a poet’s novel” is generally a backhanded compliment for a book that is descriptive to a fault, Story Book shows us how the poet’s conception of a text as self-sustaining can inform the genre of the novel or novella. Like different sections of a long poem, these chapters form a mosaic that suggests new ways of thinking about thinking about the world and writing.
The sections of Story Book feel less like fragments and more like memorials; to experience and to language’s power to suggest and sustain an individual’s sensibility, which is nothing more or less than the style with which a single mind moves through the places, people and events we call reality and allows reality to move through it, and in so doing move it. Stephan Delbos 






DOUGLAS PICCINNINI’S Story Book: A Novella suspends and electrifies narration mid-creation. Story Book explores narratives of self-imposed amnesia, bloody encounters at home and on the road, Oedipal rage, suburban cocoons and the anxiety of marriage, male sexuality and therapy sessions gone awry, Catholic school and homosociality, confrontations with love, death, and surveillance, and of course, the purported cure-all of worst-case scenario guides. The “novella” is composed of a series of short stories which all begin with the title, “Chapter 1.” Each Chapter 1, laced with metatextuality, develops its own existential confusions before arriving at a moment of implosion or interruption.
Story Book is thus about a modern man, a modern artist, and a modern thinker disabled by language. The ghosts of Gertrude Stein, A. R. Ammons, and Samuel Beckett haunt Piccinnini’s prose as each chapter performs its role as self-confrontation or self-interview. Piccinnini’s power as a writer emerges when his disabled speaker learns how to articulate himself, and how to use the very language that hinders his understanding of himself, in order to climb out of existential dilemmas and tailspins.
The “novella” begins with a young man who finds himself alone in a public park. He is without keys, money, or identification, and he is completely disoriented. He cannot recall anything about his life: his reason for being alive, the nation he belongs to, or even the language he speaks. The details of his own narrative — the markers of his identity and socialization — slowly come back to him in opaque, half-understood forms as he attempts to perform and record his own story:
My recourse was to remember, to recite what I could. What I could from memory, aloud to hear how to perform. Then could if I tried …
Like beginning is speaking is beginning. I mean, as if I hadn’t said anything recently. The way you could spend all day thinking and not speaking, the mouth out of practice. The mouth disabled, persistently in the dull echo of swallowing …
I could begin if I could begin.
I recited one of the first things I remembered remembering.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the Republic, for which it stands,
One nation, under God, indivisible
With liberty and justice for all.”
I felt confident, with hope that my recitation might build meaning to place. Place me somewhere, thinking.
I must live in the United States then.
I am in the United States. I am speaking and thinking in English like an American.
Like one does, I think.
Piccinnini’s training as a poet illuminates his work, the structure of his prose echoing the long-lines of Ammons and Walt Whitman. These rolling lines are less biting than Ginsberg’s, but through a Stein–like interplay of sense and nonsense, his diction evokes vulnerability and makes evident the emotional, psychological, and cultural stakes involved. In this space of confusion, syntax and grammar break down as the speaker attempts to reformulate his own expression and empower his own disabled tongue. As language learns to articulate itself, ready-made forms of cultural capital — such as the privilege of being an American or speaking in the neo-colonizing tongue of English — are challenged by the speaker’s very inability to give them significance or import. In this Chapter 1 and in others, the parameters of the speaker’s life, of his identity, and of his sexuality are called into question by the birth and death of language.
Another “Chapter 1” begins with the simple provocation: “What did I love?” In this chapter, the speaker sits alone at his computer trying to decipher the meaning of his relationships with women and his odd infatuation with words. He ponders the difficulty of writing an address, a story in which the perspectives of the “you” and “I” combine and trade places. He considers how easily days of productivity disappear as the writer attempts to get a sense of urgency on paper. He writes, “I feel the quotation of an afternoon, emptied — empty before me,” and then reveals:
This is the third time I’ve lived with a woman.
I’ve been in love before. I’ve been loved. I’ve also wanted to have sex with the same person over and over again but that is not love, I think.
Sex can be love. But love and sex are different, obviously. Is it obvious? Sometimes you’ll want to have sex with someone you don’t know and never want to know. You’ll find yourself destroying a complete stranger in some compromising position. It would seem to be some biological failure, love and how we live.
This is the first time I’ve been married. I love my wife. I read recently, “Love is a condition of understanding.” I’m quoting from memory. It sounds like something you might read anywhere.
A nagging sense of quotation, of living a life built on quotation marks haunts the novella. The speakers of his stories are troubled by the thought that their very human existence and their desires for creative expression have already been written and have found a home in someone else’s prose. The fear of living a life already recorded and already performed by literary archetypes creates a start-and-stop motion in Piccinnini’s prose.
Later in the same chapter, the speaker’s wife comes upon his empty desk and opens his computer. She begins to read what he has written on the screen, and thinks it’s pretty boring. But soon she becomes concerned with the line, “Love is a condition of understanding.” She considers whether her husband has been untrue and sits down to hunt on his computer. As soon as she does, though, she becomes easily distracted:
She is feeling badly about looking through his writing but it’s exciting, not the writing, but like looking through old photos, report cards, a piece of string that one time had some meaning that you’ve kept and can’t remember why.
I like that part, she thinks, about “the details look as though they’ve been dropped onto a sheet of gray construction paper.” That is ok.
She starts thinking about being a child and making collages on construction paper. How she used plastic scissors with rounded tips. Voices of childhood friends start sliding around in her head. They, she, they’ve talked about it — want to have a baby but not right now. There just isn’t enough money right now. She understands, she thinks, why this — why is it not possible. Does he want to leave me?
In Piccinnini’s stories, the emotional, psychological, and even financial tolls of being a creator, a writer of one’s own life story, are examined with brutal honesty. This chapter pivots on the question of love, as the speaker constructs his narrative by drawing the reader’s eye to the slippage between “you” and “I.” He then goes on to narrate how he saw a dead man once fished out from the Delaware River, and then later, when he lived in Brooklyn, how a neighbor would stand nude in front of his apartment window, flexing, after work. In between these memories are the attempts by the speaker to identify himself. He notes that he’s an Aries and married. As he reads his horoscope for the day (November 7, 2013), the point of view shifts to “you.” But through these mental exercises, what does the speaker love? As he tries to record his memories, his prose begins to take on a fantastic and fictional element. He imagines his wife reading his prose and reacting to it. And later in the chapter, she actually does. Here the narrative shifts again, seamlessly from the I/you hybrid of the speaker’s thinking voice to the internal monologue and anxieties associated with the wife’s third-person limited point of view. The wife’s perspective reveals what’s at stake for both of them: money, fidelity, stagnation. After the wife “gets up from his desk,” a horoscope follows: “March 12th, 2014: Aries: You may be feeling you are overwhelmed by all the work you have to do … As long as you don’t panic, and you stay focused and consistent, you will have a clean slate by the time Friday rolls around.” Time and the story literally jump: this time four months into the future. And the speaker who begins the story is never heard from again. The narrative returns, instead, to the figure of the wife, whose actions this time around speak of finality: “She got up from his desk.” This last line of the story closes the chapter’s rumination on love and meaning.
In many of Piccinnini’s stories, the reader assumes the role of a confidant or that of a priest at a confessional. But there is something subversive and uncanny in these stories as well. As a reader, you feel like you are trespassing into the ultra-personal, peeking at the moment when personhood is formed or destroyed, where characters just begin to crystallize at the moment of arrival.
Another “Chapter 1” focuses on a cross-country trucker. He begins his confession with, “On the last part of the drive, when I could tell I was close, the land in front of me opened up. It was like a feeling dissolving. Almost like winning and losing at the same time.” A sense of dissolving is echoed in the very construction of this chapter, as parts of the driver’s narrative are literally erased from the story and supplemented with the words “[TEXT MISSING].” The “burden of arriving” and erasure haunt the driver who finds himself alone at a “fucking Waffle House” for dinner and then a lonely motel room for a night’s sleep. To occupy himself, he flips through the “pay-per-view Adult section” on TV, and then he starts “thinking about all the guys that could’ve been in those same rooms looking through the Adult section with their cocks in their hands and the remote in the other, and that made me turn off the TV and wash my hands for a good while.” But on another day of driving, the speaker’s moral indignation gives way to a quick moment of relief with the program Lusty Ladies. The next morning, he continues his vagabond’s journey:
I stopped at McDonald’s to take a shit somewhere — an hour past KC, MO — and when I was walking through the parking lot, some kids yelled, “Hey you FAGGOT” out of the window of their car as they pulled on the highway from the drive-through.
The sun was just up over the road and in five minutes those boys would find themselves — their Chevy Beretta — swerving into the median at 70 plus miles an hour.
When I passed them in my car they still had a few minutes to live.
I waved at them.
Life, death, emotional and psychic integrity, and honesty mix together with a healthy dose of schadenfreude, absurdity, and distress in Piccinnini’s collection of beginnings. One never knows what to expect of these narratives, which seem to simultaneously create and destroy their own conceits. These are narratives aware of their own self-performance, repetitions, and attempts at union. High on provocation, they easily seduce and discomfort the reader. You arrive as a reader “to destroy yourself.” This is a text concerned not just with the possibilities of having fulfilling or meaningful “futures,” but rather with taking a hard look at the possibilities and worth of the present, because the only way to escape existential angst, Story Book suggests, is through the very act of creation, of writing, of repetition, of collage, and of meditation. Or as Piccinnini dares his speaker and reader: “Place me somewhere, thinking.” - Rita Banerjee


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Douglas Piccinnini, Blood Oboe,  Omnidawn, 2015.


Blood Oboe materializes inside the labyrinth of the cosmos. These poems, possessed by tonal torque, writhe in frustration: in loss of faith, in the shadow of “progress,” in abject desire. For lack of finding transcendence in the everyday, Douglas Piccinnini’s poetry recodes the vanishing pastoral and codes the new currency of digital the age—of the person forever indebted and on trial. “[S]tepping through a look” Blood Oboe moves through an expanse of “clipped moods” more than feelings—made from feeling, that seek “to distinguish time in time.”


"Douglas Piccinnini is a poet who causes space—verbal, figural space—to contract, inducing a negative lyric that reverses the expansive release characteristic of positive versions of poetic epiphany." - Andrew Joron


“He has done it―written poems of a gnarled toughness that can’t be taken apart, chewed up, seen through. Douglas Piccinnini has set the mark for new poems of a terrific integrity, unsmiling (their humor is deep down, waiting); poems sharply seeing. Seeing, for instance, that the mathematical universe is maddeningly out of synch with the negative numbers of the daily emotions that cannot catch up with the day: ‘what’s this dumb rope to cling to.’ Where is the sum? The transcendence? ‘All the coin towers / tooth down.’” - Cal Bedient


What can I assert about Douglas Piccinnini's poems when they take such great care to dismantle assertions, piling their bits into a heap? Assertions are made with words, and from this heap he gives them back to the world his way, and he knows what he's doing. George Oppen said, "if word A must be next to word B, GET it there." Piccinnini always does, according to the mystery that his ear recognizes. "One way of grieving/a dethroned self" is through the creation of a nugatory poetic universe where no dark night is blunted but there is always an unlit match, which is to say, meaning. - Stacy Szymaszek


The discrepancy between what is possible and the void is here made to rub up against itself again and again, where the match that is not lit inside your pocket suddenly blooms into a grieving flame and is given away (then taken back) in an act only language can accomplish. Here is where language simply won’t be forced to story but gossips around its centers and edges, backlit in stark, bright, virtual, singing delirium. These poems show me what we lie next to: proprioception in late digital avarice, but also the mind and the poem (in their vibrant, native ontological enquiries) as avaricious as the world. - Eleni Sikelianos


James Merrill’s “Marsyas” might be the most fitting text for the back of this at once bewildering and clarificatory book, not because the poetry here is anything like Merrill’s, but because Douglas Piccinnini seems a descendent of that ancient, flayed musician who happened upon a way to make music and then paid for it. I like that these poems don’t much want to be “liked"; rather, Blood Oboe demands something else—something better—of its readers, all of whom will benefit from its sad ha ha and its enstranging cadences. - Graham Foust


Douglas Piccinnini’s first collection of poems, Blood Oboe (Omnidawn, 2015) is poetry as pumped-up kicks. It transforms English the way a rope burn changes the way you feel about rope. Andrew Joron brilliantly reviewed the book in the journal Lana Turner, and I wrote the introduction, but it may not receive much attention, and not just because few books of poetry do, but also because it is rare, ferociously accomplished, difficult, aggressive, and crack-throated; it’s not for sissies. “A sort of storm / verbs the air”; “the center is closed”; “To wait out / the lozenge of spit”—it’s in that line, bitter as Rimbaud. Piccinnini may be a child of the internet age, but he’s not buying it: “‘I come out’ / to you thru websites. / Websites? Websites”). He’s not buying anything, not now, not with “everything titted up—unrhymed.” His short lines elbow away comforting concepts. Life? “Our timed something.” To me, his existential toughness is refreshing. No bullcrap. Like Ashbery he sees the basic insufficiency, the crying shame in the peculiar anti-phenomenon called time and in what still receives the name of “self”: “my property of cells / my ‘my’ / . . . decharmed / . . . blood in the hopper.” With his kitchen-Spanish inserts (Piccinnini is a New Jersey chef), he mouths “the air big air” in more than one language, but still comes away starved: “Life is ‘terrible.’ I get hungry: / it’s time to punch everyone.” Clearly the man can communicate and has humor. That he is difficult in askew, gnomic statements and abruptness I lack the space to illustrate. If anything suffices in or near the Puccinnini ex-world, suffice it to say that each of his poems is something to marvel at. He has arrived complete, “already late, dismembering.” - Calvin Bedient


Claustrophobes had better stay away from this book. Douglas Piccinnini is a poet who causes space—verbal, figural space—to contract, inducing a negative lyric that reverses the expansive release characteristic of positive versions of poetic epiphany. Here, the poet’s task is to abbreviate, to condense, but not in the sense of an objectivist “condensery”—this system has been “Cleared of milk.” Within already short poetic lines, the spaces between words sometimes vanish entirely; locutions such as “yr” (for “your”) and “w” (for “with”) are deployed; French and Spanish cohabit with English like a multicultural family of words crowded into a one-room apartment. Meaning becomes concentrated, of course, when the walls start closing in: the idea of progress, as modernist destiny, turns to density, to thick description, in a relentlessly present-tense, ahistorical postmodern moment. Time, in Piccinnini ‘s poetry, has nowhere else to go but now. An “inflexible glow” thus pervades this work with “its fresh arrest / of flattened repose.” In a poem titled “No Miedo Como el Futuro,” Piccinnini writes
 
w husks nor the meat
w my green over it
w whatever isn’t there too
 
single terrifying smell.
This small shelter of blue
on black. Now go.
 
Dumbly driven in
by the lateness in time
as if time weren’t moving
 
with itself so stilled. . .
 
Piccinnini’s penchant for short lines produces a book of “clipped moods,” as he puts it. If a thought or perception begins to form, it is at once bollixed by his language’s abrupt truncations and stoppages. Could the resultant feeling that time isn’t moving stand as an allegory of the present political moment? If moments of revelation and release in traditional poetry served to sublimate or substitute for social revolution, does Piccinnini’s verse, with all its “fresh arrest,” reverse and implode that trend? Interestingly, such implosion does not lead to point-like isolation of the poetic subject but to a kind of quantum superposition, seething with all possible states, an intersubjective condition that Piccinnini describes as “transdreamed”:
 
your we out of tongue so I
 
keep learning broken pottery.
Limn that transdreamed field
one arching feeling
 
In another passage, Piccinnini writes “Transdreamed, a state parallel / downs so much pathetic weight.” The pressure of so much condensed language could yield a new alloy of thought, a utopianism of the clenched word. Yet the tight grippage, the welded junctions, of this form can also seem confining, as Piccinnini admits when he writes “to be part of the structure / / is to be in service to the structure / to screw you into a corner.” Words (subjects) want to hang together, but they also want to undergo spontaneous rearrangement. This dynamic mutuality—the very essence of utopia—requires space: intervallic, breathable. Here, the rearrangements often result not in difference, but in a “doubling becoming,” as in “Symbolic debris stands / in the trees for trees” and “There’s me / there’s you there’s me.” If breath’s dialectic—the implosive/explosive alternation that pulses through language—manifests itself, it does so as a back-and-forth “pacing” within the head-prison of a “helmet.” In a poem titled “Negative Juice,” Piccinnini writes
 
the breath I mean pacing in this helmet
the void of force stamped
the “howcanwelivewithout
theunknowninfrontofus” glance
buscando sombre
 
In these lines, the implosive force of Piccinnini’s work crushes together the words of French poet René Char, “how can we live without the unknown in front of us” (from Char’s book Furor and Mystery, published in 1948). An ineluctable inward pull defeats, or at least radically reroutes, the outward glance into the unknown. Both sender and receiver, known and unknown, have been mashed into a single signal, a dark searching (“buscando sombre”). The subject seems to be situated, then, within a sort of Leibnizian windowless monad, experiencing, as Piccinnini writes in a poem titled “Old Weather,”
 
this windowless feel that
nosunnorshadow
panic of everything
 
Nonetheless, even here, language points beyond itself, if only by archaic or obsolete constructions: “yon hope spanks / yon hope steams.” Even if consigned to a “black sewer / of replete close,” signs exist for what does not (yet) exist:
 
I leave my love as yet
as blue is a “color” as black is
“endless” “space”
 
Clasped in quote marks, the word cannot escape the prison-house of language. Yet a number of unmatched quote marks occurring throughout the book, along with the (perhaps vestigial) spacings between words and stanzas, offer some chance that, despite the apparent collapse and closure of the sign, openings to something other may yet be possible. 
—Andrew Joron


FAITH VOID

I to a looser, saprophytic practice
steeped in lost coinage.
It’s time I chew
abrupt books to nothing.
Symbolic debris stands
in the trees for trees.
A feel fruits through.
You thought you thought
more about things than
colors do rhyming


Nugatory
       
the "correct" channel in detail
is dust by dust of skin to frame
in one way the "disdain of generations"
apathy ifs to "wake" this scenery—
banners of unapproachable past
nonfruiting flower in the window.
to say I've come up in absurd discharge
a way of not knowing
the particulars of any sound—
I leave my love as yet
as blue is a "color" as black is
"endless" "space"



SOFT, poems by Douglas Piccinnini
Douglas Piccinnini, Soft, The Cultural Society, 2010.              

Douglas Piccinnini, Crystal Hard-On, minutes Books, 2010.


A brief interview with Douglas Piccinnini (conducted by Rusty Morrison)
1. I first saw your work in the magazine Lana Turner, edited by Calvin Bedient and David Lau. The first lines of yours I read were these, from a poem titled “New Window”:The dry gland along the crepuscular bulge
Coughs a last gong before eloping
Blonde into a dirty epiphany.
I still shiver with the shock at completely canny and yet inexplicable recognitions when I read this. I don’t know if you were thinking of Viktor Shklovsky’s now classic positing of “two attitudes toward art”—that one either views “art as a window on the world,” or one views art as “only a sketched window,” where one observes not the world, but a “world of independently existing things” where “words, and the relationship between words, thoughts and the irony of thoughts, [and] their divergence,” are the “content of art.” But, after the posing of any opposition, something like a no man’s land seems often to come along, into existence, between the two positions. You are one of the few writers I know who invite me to walk that no man’s land, or maybe I should say that you suddenly strand me there, a there that’s always here, though I see it most clearly when I’m reading you.

I met David Lau at the Chicago AWP in 2009.
I attended a panel called “Multiformalism: Postmodern Poetics of Form.” The panelists were Hank Lazer, K. Silem Mohammad and Annie Finch—I believe the panel was moderated by Susan Schultz.
I don’t remember how it started, but I remember a young guy getting in somewhat of a shouting match with one of the panelists. It was amazing to see someone getting passionate about poetics.
Later that night, I saw that same guy at the bar of the hotel I was staying at. I went up to him and introduced myself. David Lau. I had just published my first article on John Ashbery. I had something to talk about. We talked about John Ashbery. David had just published his first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat. Anyway, we talked for a little while and I think I bought him a drink because of how great I thought it was that he was willing to literally stand up at a panel and blast a certain panelist for “fetishizing” the “rules” of a sonnet. That was inspiring. I also learned David was editing Lana Turner with Cal Bedient.
When I got back to Brooklyn, I felt inspired by my encounter with David. “New Window” was one of the first poems I wrote after that experience. Like the feeling of opening a ‘new window’ in a browser, “New Window” embodied the freedom to open a new space and explore—to write in mid chew, through digestion and through the shit of everything happening in poetry— and everything that came before. It was liberating in my work to say, “this is how my poem will happen.”
This sense of “no man’s land” is an anti-place I am drawn to: the collected ether of intelligence that I suppose has its first home in someone’s brain. When I am thinking of the poem, I am not necessarily situated in a place that I know, though there are things that I know that populate that place.
Socially and politically, it’s often seen as a weakness to occupy multiple positions at once. In physics an object can occupy the spatial dimensions of length, width, height and spacetime. Without pretending to know more than I do about physics, I think that my poems often play in a kind of spacetime, bouncing off of the fixed positions and demands of ‘normative,’ ‘clear’ communication. In the poem, there is every intention of honoring the multiplicity of feelings and ideas that that are there.
So the poems are active like the universe is active.
In cinema, for example, a contemporary viewer is primed for jump cuts, flash forwards, and flash backs that can coexist in a singular unfolding. In poetry, a considerable amount of damage can be done to a reader’s attention span and interest in the work, by traveling through the wormholes of jump cuts, or playing an unrecognizable ‘music’ that requires careful, nuanced listening. To attempt to address your question: art exists simultaneously as a window on the world and only a sketched window. They are of the same space. But it is also the willfulness to ignore the dichotomy of an either or situation—for the singular spacetime unfolding brings together not only the relationships between words, but also the relationships between worlds.
2. Cal Bedient, in his virtuoso introduction to Blood Oboe, says this “His language is tough, as he’s tough: “life is a gang. / now get. moisten.” Piccinnini is utterly accomplished, but not in the old, easily recognizable ways. He’s quick and furious but he never goes wrong, even if his subject is that everything is wrong.” Could you talk a bit about your subject, subjects, what you subject yourself to encountering as you engage the subjective in language. How do these poems come about, make their about-face, their entirely unexpected, subversive approach to explication? Maybe you can talk about how you craft the work? I am tempted to ask the oldest questions: where does the poem begin? What stance? and does that stance become disrupted in the process, stealing the sub- from its substance?
Recently, at a reading in Raleigh, NC, I think I foolishly said that all of my poems were about 9-11. At least I felt kind of foolish. I’m 32 years old and, on September 11, 2001 I was just a kid starting college. What I think I meant was that 9-11 has haunted me in a singular way since then. I don’t think of myself as patriotic. I don’t miss the idea of not having those buildings nor the ideas of what those buildings stood for. The human loss is equally perplexing in its own indeterminate way. I’m certain that I can never understand the events of that day (and thereafter) fully—the incendiary sensation of that instant—though I try to. There was an inexplicable void channeled into me that day. A void made for the space of empathy, of grief, of suspicion and of mistrust. This void seems to not be nothing, but a place.
As for the “craft” of my work: I think of my subjects. The effacement of my subject. What the subject is is the confusion of the subject. The work is a meditation towards the revelation of a complex feeling that is not merely an anecdote of love, family, war, loss, etc. but an investigation into the myriad subsets of these and other minor feelings. The poem is the purge, the disgorging.
3. Can you talk about the poems in the manuscript that were the first you wrote? and how they evolved? How did the manuscript, as a manuscript, come about? and as it did, were there poems that wouldn’t cohere with the constellation as it emerged? And if there were poems that didn’t fit your intentions for the work, did they change your intentions? or were they poems that were consumed by the whole, and disappeared? Also I wonder if you could talk about the book’s title in relation to any of this?
One of the first jobs I had in New York was working in The Strand Bookstore. My job was to shelve books in the Literature and Poetry sections as they came in. I made about $8.50/hr and spent most of my paychecks buying up out-of-print and weirdo books that you might not see anywhere. I also bought a lot of books that were quite common, but that you could get for about 7 bucks when you found the right deal. I was building my library.
While at The Strand, I met the poet and publisher Zach Barocas. He was my boss there. This was at the start of 2009. I had sent Zach a few poems for The Cultural Society before I’d met him. And then a few months later he asked if I had anything like a chapbook.
I had been working on a long poem called Soft. It was made up of interchangeable parts. About 20 sections. This poem unfolded in a special a way. Before starting work on it, I listened to recordings of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for a few months at night before I went to bed. Most times I would fall asleep about 15 minutes into the recording. The next day I’d pick up listening again. At the time I was also reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies. All of the texts seemed to fit together.
Thinking of these works, I began working on Soft one page at time. I wrote a three line, three stanza poem. Then I copied and pasted this poem into a new document and re-wrote my poem, cannibalizing words, sounds—associating feelings and ideas until I had a new poem. Then I did this again and again until I felt I had exhausted this strategy. Until I felt the poem—now composed of 22 links of a chain— was complete.
Zach published Soft as a chapbook in 2010. The poem(s) appear reworked and worked in intermittently throughout Blood Oboe.
4. Could you talk about any writers &/or artists &/or thinkers who have influenced you in this work? (in what direct or indirect ways have you felt this occur?) And/or could you talk about who are you reading currently? With whom do you feel a kinship or a provocation or…?
At the risk of sounding simple, Jackson Pollock was one of the first artists that I encountered as a kid that helped me realize that a subject—and a narrative for that matter—could be different than what I had been conventionally taught. Specifically, that the narrative could chronicle its own making, and that the subject was this process. I remember being in junior high and making drip paintings in my parent’s garage with whatever I could find. There was this blue chalk powder that we had. Wood glue. Green spray paint. Black varnish. I “ruined” the garage floor but I was playing, experimenting.
It took me a while before I encountered a poet that I felt spoke outside of the canonical poems most students and young poets are first introduced to. I first read John Ashbery’s Self Portrait In A Convex Mirror in college. The overheard, conversational quality, the fragments, the sustained dream logic enticed me. Also, around this time, the playwright Mac Wellman came to visit a playwriting class I was taking with playwright Ken Urban. Ken had us read Three Americanisms. It was an introduction to creative writing class and I almost dropped the class because Ken said that we would be focusing on the short story and playwriting and not poetry. I had wanted to focus on poetry. Wellman’s Three Americanisms and Ashbery’s Self Portrait In A Convex Mirror were seminal texts for me.
In the last few years, and in no specific order, Graham Foust, Rae Armantrout, Robert Creeley and Emily Dickison became very important to my creative process. John Cage’s compositions for prepared piano and Erik Satie’s early piano compositions have taught me a lot about making a space for silence in my work. Gygöry Ligeti’s tonal masterpieces (probably best known in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) are perhaps the soundtrack to the “no man’s land” in my work.
5. Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything you are willing to share that might not be in your short bio that is published in the book?
I love cinema. I feel like cinema is the most complete medium. For me, it would be my ideal medium because of the direct access to the senses through sound, image(s) and text. The attention that it gets, being viewed in a dark room. The hypnosis involved in facing the screen—in the willingness of a viewer to give themselves over to the medium. Though recently, the way in which people watch films (and images) has dramatically changed in the past decade, as screens are everywhere. There is a lot of competition for attention.
My first encounters at the movies were the most profound and affordable experiences that I had with art. I adore Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life in the way these films are superficially appealing to a wide audience: the story and characters are likeable. The genius in films like The Wizard of Oz and It’s A Wonderful Life reside in the handling of the struggle against what seems like an identifiable, yet insurmountable evil. The subsequent journeys of both Dorothy Gale and George Bailey in alternate worlds are insightful, in so much as their longing for an otherness or other reality becomes grounded in an appreciation for their actual reality.
To return to the idea of a “no man’s land,” the spaces in which both of these films bloom is in the transformative, alterative worlds these characters are able to travel to. I think that my poems have this allowance—this removal from convention—and possess the potential to reflect on what Cal Bedient identifies as my “subject is that everything is wrong.”
6. You were instrumental in the selection of the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Would you describe your considerations in your arrival at the choice for this cover image? How does this cover align with your intentions for the book?
I like patterns. I like symmetry. In Egyptian hieroglyphs there is often a perceived lack of a focal point. The image is like a textile, to be absorbed in totality.
When I approached artist Darren McManus and asked for his help in creating a digital image, we worked together to produce an image that we felt was both compelling as a textile-based image and suitable to lay text over. That is to say, even without the text on it, you would want to look at the image as an art object. - www.omnidawn.com/products-page/new-upcoming-releases/blood-oboedouglas-piccinnini/#interview


Outside the Held Standard: Douglas Piccinnini’s Flag

am, in poems


poems in Lana Turner Journal
3 poems in Verse
3 poems in ink node
As a Person Like a Person Hearing
Douglas Piccinnini: Ashbery In Paris: Out of School

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