June 21, 2010

Dear Tom van de Voorde, and Dear Amsterdam, Dear the Netherlands,

Last week, a few of us trotted down to Rotterdam for the Poetry International Festival, an annual to-do of (usually) great poets from around the world. This year, the festival highlighted American poets and poetry, and so we had the opportunity to listen to Katherine Coles, CK Williams, Christian Hawkey, Michael Palmer, Katia Kapovich (billed as an "American transplant" or some such other),

and...Wallace Stevens.

Here's the text from the English version of "Wallace Stevens: last Dutchman of America":

"A few decades after Peter Stuyvesant, the famous immigrant from Friesland who founded New York, another Dutchman, a certain Michiel Stevens, boarded ship to sail to the new world. What happened to him after that is anyone’s guess. All we know is that he married a certain Ryertie Mol, sired a few children, and in a jiffy a century and a half had passed. Apparently he didn’t leave much of a mark on history. Nonetheless, his legacy was invaluable, if only for the fact that he contributed his DNA to the grandson of the grandson of his grandson: Wallace Stevens (1879–1955), a well-to-do gentleman and solicitor for an insurance company, who earned enough money to maintain a couple of expensive hobbies."

From the rationale of ancestry follows, somehow, and very much in both the Dutch and English versions of this text, a kind of Dutch claim on (or colonization of, if you will) a major American poet. The text goes on to describe Stevens' impact on literature, which apparently would have been "completely different" without him.

Don't get me wrong: I enjoy Stevens' work. But I was rather dumbfounded by the exaggeration of an ancestry. I mean, hell, America is what it is because of a lot of horrible colonization. The majority of us are not from there, if you go back far enough. Using the logic of this text, the Dutch could likely lay claim to most of our nation, thanks to their exploratory philandering.

(And for the sake of hammering my goofy point home, the text from the Dutch version in the festival program actually begins:

"Peter Stuyvesant is not the only Dutchman who earns a star on the American flag."

Insert appropriate expletive here. Never mind that the stars represent states, not people.)

I have seen this subsumption of American-ness occur before. When Obama was elected President, an article came out in the Dutch press which claimed that he is part-Dutch, and through this or that verbal maneuvering, by the end of the piece the Netherlands was given credit for his progressive politicking. Then there was that whole weirdness that was NY400 (i.e. New York is the coolest city in the world because the Dutch founded it). Is subsuming each other just something we do? I grant that since I live in Amsterdam, I may just be able to see this from one side; the intense love/hate relationship that the Dutch have with America likely does not help my general refusal to suffer fools.

So sociological/psychological wonderings aside: Tom van de Voorde's less-than-scholarly article on Wallace Stevens simply has an unnecessary starting point. You don't need to claim Stevens as Dutch before you argue his importance to Dutch literature. Nor do you need to do so in order to market him to the festival audience. Van de Voorde's piece obstructs any "real" engagement with his work, especially for those in the audience who may have come across him for the first time.
Stevens--as most poets, as most people--stands on his own feet without claims to place or place's claims on him.

Must we locate something before we can find even the will to engage with it?

June 07, 2010

Place today

In the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure (god, who says that. And how else do you say that.) of meeting both Peter Gizzi and John Hennessy--in fact, it's been a year so far of little glimpses into what it would be like if I ever sucked it up and moved back to America, and subsequently into an MFA program because what else would I do--glimpses into that meeting thing that happens in the world's company of poets (and writers) and that so rarely happens here. Thanks, mostly, to those four weird days in Denver at AWP. But next week I might just run down CK Williams in Rotterdam, for the heck of it, but not literally run down of course.

Peter (and I think I am safely on a first-name basis with him because we have a secret handshake now) read at Perdu from, among other things, The Outernationale. I don't have a copy of the book yet because I'm broke, so I haven't seen the poems on the page, but the title piece is, if memory serves, variously interrupted by strings of suffixes which both stress and calm. Peter also read "Vincent, Homesick For The Land Of Pictures", which he said he had not before read aloud, but which was (and I don't really know how else to put it right now, and this word is either misspelled or does not exist) utterly transportative; for a moment I remember feeling as though I were in church (in a good way)--an experience I also recently had at a Jonsi show,

so maybe really it's just me, and maybe I should go to church?

If you have read Peter's work then you may nod when I say that his attention to place (perhaps especially in The Outernationale) piqued my interest immediately--and John, similarly, is busy with it, though in different ways. In particular, John's the Poetry Editor of Amherst College's new and upcoming journal The Common, which aims to publish work that "[embodies] particular times and places both real and imagined: art powerful enough to reach from there to here."

Sound familiar?

I am excited by these recent crossings with these poets, who are busy with questions similar to my own, and I hope AWP accepts our cool panel idea on the subject, too.