ERIC GELSINGER Reviews
Letterhead Volume 2 Edited by Eric Johnt, Bradley Lastname, Brian McMahon, Robert Pomerhn
(Highest Hurdle Press, 2009)
Letterhead Vol 2 is a glossy magazine of poetry and collage art out of Buffalo.
It took me a while to get into the right groove, but once I did I found myself reading the thing for a solid hour or two, and enjoying it more than I do most poetry periodicals.
What I like most about Letterhead is how uneven it is. It's got 4 editors, so the work is bound to vary. But, throw in the fact it's a journal of performance poetry, and that one of the editors might be (as far as I can tell) crazy, and what you get is a very diverting poetry easter egg hunt. I like it.
So, most poetry magazines are 100% bad, and the poems are bad boring bad. First off, Letterhead is not 100% bad, so it has that going for it. Secondly, the bad poems in Letterhead are apt to be bad good bad, sometimes thrillingly bad -- and therefore instructive. One reason campy b-movies are so super fun and exciting during intellectual puberty is they change you like a rite of passage. They draw you out of being a passive viewer -- you shout at the screen, you deride the actors, you laugh from above at the movie. It's highly edifying. Personally when I trace my, um, development as a critic, I can turn back to the golden age of friends and terrible films in the Welte basement and see myself maturing from viewer to reviewer. Likewise, more can be learned from the bad poems in Letterhead than from the so called good poems in most spd type zines. And it's not even because the poems are worse than the spd bad poems, it's because Letterhead provides a certain context and the bad poems have obvious ambition -- talking about politics, revolution, suicide -- in an overt mode, often heroic, that opens itself to criticism while lacking the protection of obscurity, theory, or mfa initiate poetics. The nakedness of the poems is the best part.
The bad poems are also instructive because they bring out the differences between oral performance and a performance on the page. You can learn a lot about songwriting and poetry by reading Bob Dylan's lyrics like a poem. The poem is god awful. The song is great. Why, exactly? Same thing here, although unfortunately there's no cd or any record of the oral performance.
Then there are the good poems, which seem especially good in the environment of Letterhead. And it's not because good among bad will appear excelsior. Rather, it's that naked ambition that marks almost every page: when the poems work, it seems nearly impossible, and therefore miraculous and especially real. The tone of the magazine is so serious and passionate-- so serious that when a poem fails it becomes ridiculous, thereby maintaining that serious air-- so when something works, it really works. Most poetry journals don't inspire in me that kind of emotional respect, and even the good poems don't mark me because they float in pages where all words are kept safe by wishy washy passionless experimentalism. Reading Letterhead, though, I feel something's at stake.
(I haven't read the whole volume yet -- it's a pretty big book -- but I want to single out Brian McMahon as one author of the good poems I'm talking about. He has real poetry in there. He's also one of the four editors, and I wonder which selections are his . . . )
As for my own poem, the magazine couldn't be a more perfect context. My piece, I think, is a microcosm of the whole issue. It is uneven, as you'd expect from a single unedited and unprepared talk into a recorder. It would likely be far more impressive if you heard it because it'd be off the tip of the tongue. Some of it is bad, some of it is boring, but then sometimes the language suddenly lights up -- just as happens in any improvisation. I recorded the poem as one of many experiments I was doing back in Buffalo before leaving for South America. The experiments were all similar in that they recorded consciousness through writing -- variations of "graphs of the mind moving." They also included time as a variable explicitly. The first poem in Nevertheless, in which I clear my mind in meditation then type without thought or interruption is another example. And, I've recently gone back into this mode with recordings of glossolalia, song, chant, and freestyle improvised under different conditions. Such experiments, transposed on the page, are a type of theater. It's possible that the good lines of my Talk Poem are better than good thanks to this theatrical magic. I mean here's how it is. You read a bunch of rather blah lines, and it sounds like somebody is just talking blah blah and then bam! something kinda brilliant and poetic, and it affects the reader more than good lines would in a poem where, the reader knows, the poet "cheated" by deliberating and editing and so forth.
So, like happens throughout the magazine, the effects of the good aren't heightened because the good's surrounded by bad. Rather, poetic power is magnified by the theater created in pages where people who are poets only for the moment are speaking, where the words are to be heard as much as read, and where words come from life, not scholarship. It's like a magazine of language that actually happened, and the theater which inheres in all documents (called history) is present, I hope, in my talk poem, and it is also present in the magazine when taken as a whole.
Thereby, Letterhead's good poems become more than just poems in the way we've come to understand the word. They become language where something is at stake, the way a human being is at stake on stage, as opposed to the character's name in the script. The words are embodied, language is embodied, and real poetry may be hard to come by, but it has a chance of being there. This can't be said for many journals of greater reputation.
So yeah it's kinda far out. I like being part of such a different magazine. Mike Basinski, Aaron Lowinger, myself: poets who could be called performance poets, but are not and are who usually published in Silliman mags. Then Name alum Brian VanRemmen, the already mentioned Brian McMahon, Zev Gottdiener, the very funny Bradley Lastname, and many slammers, and journalistic and performance poets whom I don't know.
Last point: Letterhead also has an interesting layout, which makes the hunt more fun. McMahon did a good job laying down visual art and poetry with a strong visual presence -- including my antin-spaced talk. Makes the unevenness even more fun.
Eric Gelsinger lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is a member of House Press and has a blog at www.gelsingers.blogspot.com