No Matter Where: Art & Community

by Charles Alexander

Increasingly, I want my friends around me, and my friends are everywhere, anywhere. David Miller, the Australian poet who has lived in London for about 30 years. Simon Pettit, the British poet who has lived on the Lower East Side of New York for about 30 years, David Abel, the poet and performer from Deming, New Mexico, who has lived in New York, Albuquerque, and Portland over the last 34 or so years, Kali Tal, the rebellious scholar who left teaching in Arizona and has lived in Bern, Switzerland, for the last decade, Alec Finlay, the wandering Scottish poet who has wintered in southern Arizona twice in the last three years, Susan Bee, the painter from New York who has lived in New York pretty much all her life, Will Alexander (no relation), who has lived his life in Los Angeles but who in spring 2015 shared 3 days in a room with me in Montana, Tenney Nathanson, who lived in the same city with me for nearly 30 years but who I only saw once a month or so despite being a best friend, Kathy Kuehn, who helped teach me how to print and how to celebrate but who I haven’t seen in 6 or so years, Walter Raleigh, who wrote a long and lovely poem from the ocean(himself) to Cynthia (Queen Elizabeth), Emily Dickinson, who spent a lot of years in a room but who knew how to use a flint-lock rifle and who wrote nearly 2000 poems, most of them in 5 or 6 years, Dorothy Wordsworth, who I think of myself walking with in meadows and near lakes while commenting on the flowers and the glint of sunshine over the hill, David Jones who fought on one part of the great northern European chalk formation and wrote two long and demanding poems near the other side of that formation in and near London, Sir Thomas Wyatt who lost something by falling into the arms of a lover to whom falling in that way was not an appropriate thing to do, Anselm Hollo whose laugh could possibly be heard one hundred yards away from his Colorado home, Jonathan Brannen who I remember was called one of the “hynenas” by my children because of his rather loud snoring who could pack a world into a small book of poems, Jennifer Bartlett who dances among syllables as well as anyone I know and who I try to see whenever I occupy the same city she occupies, Eli Goldblatt who has redefined what it means to teach young adults how to think about writing their lives, Chris Bruch who doesn’t speak in public but makes an art of difficult encounters and once told me to quit my job and start a press and do what I wanted to do, Robert Mittenthal who may be the smartest man I know, bpNichol who asks what is the poem inside the body body body and whose vision led me to a poetry I didn’t know existed, Jackson Mac Low who brought the light and the sound and the music, and Cynthia Miller who illuminates. This is not all. It’s never all. Dante is here. Bob Creeley is here. Robert Duncan is here. H.D. is here. Barbara Guest is here. Erica Hunt is here. Keep your friends close, but with your poetry friends, the best of them which means those one most engages and entwines with and loves, they simply are close, no matter where they are.
Robert Duncan writes of the grand collage. Each of us makes one. It’s where we live. If you walk out in the morning and see the universe in a grain of sand, perhaps William Blake is in your collage. If you know what it means to justify something, anything, about the ways of man or god or yourself, John Milton may be a blind man in your corner. If you love and language is a part of that love, Francesco Petrarch may be walking in your garden. If you bend a knee or a gender at times, possibly Shakespeare has tricked you out and twisted your sensibilities. We live with the living and we live with the dead who are living and we love them, and I think that’s why I’m a poet and why I started a press that publishes poetry. The commitments are wide; the commitments are deep, the commitments and a few dance steps here and there make the community.
Trace Peterson is here, too. Last year she wrote, “I am proud to have done some important things this year, in poetry and in the trans community. They don’t fit into established genres so they won’t appear on any of the Best of 2015 lists you are about to be flooded with over the last weeks of the year as we rush toward mythologizing what happened in literature or in trans whatever whateverness. But a certain kind of important, even vital thing never does appear on the list. And I’m used to hiding in plain sight that way. Because people who care will notice and what I do will be important to them and that’s what matters in building literature and community.”
What is I and what is other? The poem, in its synapses, knows.

The community, the communal, associates the whole with the part. Wherever I am present, all members of my community are present. Borders break down, plinths are not the only possibility for support of the statues, which are not bound by the weight of their materials. While airy sprites might descend to hand us speech, we ascend and sprinkle the elements of speech throughout the world, from Dogon to Andalusia to Los Angeles to Oaxaca. There where nothing stays still, as if anything could, and that nothing which is a mountain points to a star’s order, and star is a matter of points. Our community nature thus not only expands to all the people within our elective circles or grand collages, but to the very stuff of the universe, the effluvia, the force, of if one prefers a more “empty” sense from which all things spring, the chora, which is also a core and a chorus and a chorale of atomic dissonance, where dissonance compiles the universe. I began this paragraph with the communal associating the whole with the part, which I take from Will Alexander’s “Inalienable Recognitions,” an essay/pamphlet/tract published by eohippus labs in 2009.

Will Alexander and Charles Alexander at Thinking Its Presence 2016. Photo by John Keene.
Will Alexander is my unikely brother, though I don’t know why I say unlikely. We have shared something of an arc of career, publishing our first books about the same time, moving in circles that constantly intersect and include. My greatest sense of what we might share came when I first heard about the second edition of the conference “Thinking Its Presence: The Racial Imaginary,” and the first and pretty much only thought I had was that I needed to go there with Will Alexander, and we needed to talk about our friendship, our connections, our racial imaginaries through our origins and our imaginations. So we did, and stayed at the same bed & breakfast, in the same room, for three nights in Missoula, Montana, undertaking an hours-long conversation in which only parts were audible in our official presentations at the conference. Presentations are glimpses, not summations or reductions, just as this lecture is a glimpse. Perhaps one can’t present community as idea, one can only DO community, and mine with Will is something for a lifetime, yet not even our lifetimes, for Will’s vision is one not so bounded, and mine is one in which a great hand lowers itself to raise us up and mix our molecules so that we no longer are separate, no longer “one” and “other,” no longer “frog” and “toad,” no longer “I” and “you.” Will’s vision would never allow such divisions (except as mistakes of western consciousness and the Cartesian view) in the first place.

For Will Alexander, the nature of matter is as something that “cannot be contained as sterilization by plinth, by manipulated allotment or border,” and such a view is seen as core to “the Asiatic endogeny, and by extension, Africa with all its stunning oral kingdoms.” Not only a matter of peoples, though, but his inclusion takes in “the ice fields, wildebeest optics, or the spontaneous hexagramatics of servals.” He may call this inclusion “the balletics of the ozone . . . at the spillage of the sky which exhales as a burning supra-physical raga.” While Alexander points to Breton and Miro, making us lean toward surrealism as concurrent to his own vision and practice, yet Alexander is grounded in a wide view of possible science, and his “build on the sodium” is palpable, of those grains of sand Blake speaks about, not an impossible wilderness. He may visit a place “where neutron semantics transpires,” but his own semantics, while blitzing through cosmological wavelengths, are profoundly palpable. They speak to you; they speak to me.

I write these words while sitting in one of the barrios of a city in the desert southwest of the United States, a place where cultures of Native America, Latin America, and Anglo America mix, where the winds whip against odd landscapes of ocotillo and mesquite and palo verde and cholla, where a walk in the Tucson mountains where the rock is called “Tucson chaos,” and myriad visions seem possible, where the very aridness belies a fullness of energetic connections. It is a land of dreams, and has been so most likely since even before the Hohokam resided here some 2000-plus years ago, building canals (again, connections, and connections bearing fruits), growing crops, particularly agave, and developing pottery in which various materials were burned in ritualistic practice.

In Asia (1995), Will Alexander writes in the voice of a group of Buddhist monks, a collective voice, which hovers in invisibility in a spheroid flecked with scarlet, conducting astral warfare against the Chinese invaders of Tibet. Yet, in his infinitely expandable sense of connections, such battlers are any of us who hold up notions of free thinking and free mingling of ideas against forces that would resist such roaming. It is a we that not only resists, but also conducts.

Sometimes I think Will Alexander akin to Charles Baudelaire because of his clear vision of the evils that would limit us, though he does not give in to Baudelaire’s ennui which most of us think is inevitable and perhaps necessary. At other times I think Will Alexander akin to William Blake who sees so clearly the burning furnaces of industrialization that make manacles to imprison us, yet who also sees the possible poetics of conjunction, rebellion, and angelic triumph that is possible for a species that has defied limits for centuries.
In a 2013 interview Alexander gets at that rebellion and freedom, yet also acknowledges that it is no straight path, can not be plotted with any existing rational verbal architectures. “To say it succinctly language is life and life being motion what follows is the intuitive understanding that creative language cannot be plotted by contiguous, or what I would call verbal architectural planning. For me it is suffused with explosive electrical motion, wayward, encyclopedic, seismic – alive by means of seeming disorder. Which does not allow for the controlling posture of “the author”, anchored as he or she is by extrinsic classification.” Where classification may leap as words may do to calcification. Here you have the characteristics of Alexander’s poetry, that it embraces the wayward, the explosive, the seismic, the encyclopedic. It remains alive at all points by making use of these modes that might point to disorder. Yet it is only a seeming disorder. Move away, to the point where the connection of all waywardness is apparent, where the electrical circuits fire the motion of the planet, of the planets, and all they survey, of all we survey, with a decidedly visionary set of tools for the task. And while there is nothing quite automatic about the processes of such writing, there is immediacy. Alexander invokes the jazz drummer Max Roach in calling for “hard work” that is to be done, yet, if one appreciates jazz, the hard work can take place in the instant, in the movement from one note or one chord or one pace, to another.
Humans are ill in Alexander’s world, but there are histories and pathways available to transform the illness. In “Above the Human Nerve Domain” (1999) he writes of “the psychic root which is stained by dialectial illness / by the thought contained in black ozonal mirrors / where general slaughter is reflected / where the mind impels its wits by bleak molecular isolation.” Yet there are ways out, involving the physical as transformative, “so what concerns me / is a yoga which implodes the sun” and releases us to become “like a stunning sapphire serpent” where we are alive like a different species and we are full “no longer of ennui / of the praxis of perfidious helium atrocity,” rather that now “I swim in the murmur of sun dogs / of kindled potentate spasms / like interior distillation / from Moorish pre-Copernica.” In this work, Europe, through its movement toward a rational Cartesian (Copernicus one of the earlier prefigurers) way of thinking, has denied the “black” or “the darker integument” that can show a way toward moving with full energy rather than in “the realms of a suicide foundry.” Alexander is strangely (or not so strangely?) hopeful, given the wisdoms present in both a long and deep past of alternative wisdoms, and wisdoms in the very cells of plants and animals and stars, that we do have a path toward the sublime, yet his sublime would be no temporary respite, rather an explosive realm of “body becoming / the magic flight of a transmuted corium.”
While I continue to be a believer in the Wordsworthian sublime, others have made of it something that can be transmuted, and simply muted, as what Robert Frost has called “a momentary stay against confusion.” It is not quite that in Wordsworth, rather something more grand, more engaged with going beyond the self, beyond the limitations of body and mind. Yet surely, in Will Alexander’s vision, as Andrew Joron points out, we are imbued with the pre-Romantic idea of imagination as “the link of links”: “Here, the energy of the imagination has not yet been harnessed to the goals of bourgeois subjectivization. Imagination is the conductor of primeval lightning, the fiery trickster leaping between frozen and fragmented realia, the universal translator of the multitude of tongues (both human and inhuman) emitted by the Signal of signals.” I might argue slightly and state that it was never the goal of the Romantic movement to harness the imagination, rather it was what a growing capitalist society managed to do to that movement, as it moved to make “art” a less explosive entity, less challenging to the ruling social entities.
Walter Benjamin, in an early work (“The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism”) makes a case for a much richer vision of imagination’s transformative power as it was seen by Romantic philosophers such as Schlegel, claiming that in envisioning a poetry of reflection, where reflection on an object quickly becomes reflection on reflection, or thinking about thinking about thinking (ad infinitum) a reader can find herself in something of an infinity of reflection that is like a roller-coaster of the sublime. Certainly such an experience is palpable to readers of Will Alexander.
In “Exobiology as Goddess” (2004) Alexander spins such a series of moments

We enter, as readers, this primal concentration and lose our limits as our imaginations consider what it might mean to enter the crystals which are cataracts in our own structure, to enter thinking about thinking, impelled, yes, by physical forces, but into coherences and upsets of coherences, back and forth, unending. The sublime in Alexander is no panacea of loveliness, rather is entry into the primal volcano of being at both its most gracious and its most tumultuous. This place can not settle, and neither can we. We aspire, we walk “on nomadic iridium.” I have called this a primal volcano. At the end of Alexander’s play, Inside the Earthquake Palace (2011), a literal volcano is about to burst forth, the late 20th Century earthake of Montserrat. Earthquake includes in its conductions both death and life, and the charater Locato’s penultimate words in the play are spoken with “a curious joy on his face,” as he says “Somewhere across the waves, the sun is breaking, I know the Sun is breaking.” It is like the birth of fire at the end of Alexander’s The Sri Lankan Loxodrome (2009), where such explosive is “like a brimstone fire / at the source of the instantaneous.”
Will Alexander is the closest we have, in our community of poets, to a jazz master, the hard won creator of the instantaneous, the transformer of note to harmonics and disharmonics to a music we both can’t quite handle and can’t turn away from.
I once wrote, in the poem “four ninety eight to seven,” of

and I don’t know, at the time, if I had any sort of value judgment in mind with that musing, but now, in the light of thinking of my own connection to Will Alexander, I think thought should always be turning, and in turning to something organic, leaf, in a wilderness that is constantly in motion and that offers us axioms for possible turnings, I may have set something of a promise or at least a path for which I would sign up. I want our thought to constantly turn to leaf. The wilderness may be the community of all the poems & poets & imaginative wonders where one lets a thought go. I tell poets I teach that once you write a poem, or at least once you share that poem, your work is potentially a part of that grand collage, of that community, and it impacts the whole and is impacted by every part of that whole. Will Alexander understands that as a matter of biology, cosmology, in his very core as a human inhabiting his body inhabiting the world.
Sometimes one honors the community through memorializing. In the book-length poem Near or Random Acts, after a meditation on war and peace and syllables and breath, I memorialize some of those who were, at the time, recently departed friends and certainly members of that community I hope I get to help create, but I also hope I allow those spirits to go somewhere else

Here the community becomes the action, the image, the construction, the loosing, the living in words and worlds, in love (eros) I once glimpsed as young girls playing in a circle of sunflowers (sunflower house) and where nothing can ever end, and so it turns and . . . It is in part here, in the eternal and, where I meet my brother Will Alexander and embrace him as we dance, and we can be together for
                                                     another day
                                                     in the woods
                        with an alphabet
or perhaps, in his words,
                  as if
                  each emotional connection
                  were a concentrated blazing
                  were a focused spark in disarray
                  amidst a mix of vibrational androgynes
except I think he believes, as I do, that there is no “as if” about it. Rather, here is where we live. We are each the part that invokes the whole.
Charles Alexander is the founder and director of Chax Press, and as such has published more than 200 books in trade, artists’ book, fine press, chapbook, and hybrid editions, by a host of innovative poets throughout North America and beyond. He is the author of five books and eleven chapbooks of poetry, and has edited a critical book on the book arts in America. His most recent books of poetry are Pushing Water (Cuneiform Press) and Two Pushing Waters (Little Red Leaves Textile Series). He is currently Poet & Designer In Residence at the University of Houston-Victoria, where he directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing and co-directs the UHV Center for the Arts. He has taught literature and writing at Naropa University, the University of Arizona, and elsewhere. In 2016 he served as a faculty member for US Poets in Mexico.

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