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  • Writer's pictureRyan Nowlin

Notes from an Open Channel

Notes from an Open Channel

Sonnet and Sonnet 8 1/2

— I owe the thematic material at the outset of this sonnet to Joan Accella’s well known article "Blocked" in which she references Paul Valéry’s famous hiatus from poetry among other poets and writers who have suffered from “writer’s block” at some point in their writing lives including S.T. Coleridge who wrote in a diary at some point, “So completely has a whole year passed with scarcely the fruits of a month—O Sorrow and Shame…I have done nothing.” To this list one might add Baudelaire’s ill fated stay in Brussels, Belgium where he hoped to reestablish his career, but failed to do so before his untimely death.

The final lines of this sonnet were derived from a procedure produced in grad school at Temple University in which certain stanzas were generated by using a procedure invented by Jackson MacLow known as the diastic. What it requires is that I choose a “key phrase”. For the purpose of this procedure I chose the title of a early poem from my first year of grad school called “Chat and Chew”, which was the name of a restaurant chain in Manhattan in the early 2000s. The first word of my experiment will be the first word in the text where the first letter is “c”. The second word will be the next word in your text where the second letter is “h”. The third word will be the next word in text where the third letter is “a”, etc. The diastic than falls into endless loop of the last two stanzas. The nonsensical nature of it makes me listen to it more carefully.

I hear “endangered candles share queer.” I can imagine that snow endangers (lit) candles, but somehow in the world of this poem, fire and water have found a way to share the space. I’m also amused by Chagall and Cher sharing the same stanza. The silly repetition of chatting and chewing communicates a lot-isn’t chatting and chewing how we spend our days in a way? I’m reminded of Eliot’s “in the room the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo. “ Finally there is the Volta or turn in line 10 upon which hinges the world of literary and self referentiality as they bleed together in a subconscious state before sleep and turning off the lights.

There is an interesting backstory to how I came to write Sonnet 81/2, the companion piece to the first sonnet. Several years ago a fellow writer and friend named Andrew and I attended a writer’s anonymous group in central New Jersey. After the meeting we would usually have dinner together and discuss our projects and aims in life.

During one such dinner conversation, Andrew mentioned to me that he had had an idea called sonnet 81/2, but had not yet been able to write it.

This idea for sonnet 8 1/2 took hold in my imagination and several years later (and after many attempts) I came to write the sonnet 8 1/2 that was published by the Chicago Review On line Edition in the fall of 2022. In writing sonnet 8 1/2 I felt like I was “channeling” a historical person named Marcello Mastroianni, a famous and debonaire Italian actor of Fellini’s new Italian Cinema much like the way Yeats or Madame Blavatsky had “channeled” their spiritual automatic writing. As I am using “channeling” in scare quotes what I really mean is that I was performing a complex exegesis of a historical film called 8 1/2 and paying homage to Shakespeare’s sonnets. The success of this experiment resulted in a fascinating interplay between between mission vs. omission, and a humorous portrayal of an actor playing a director at odds with his environment and social set. The narratives which make up this sonnet sequence of sorts enacted a kind of patchwork of temporality even though there are gaps in the seams of the historical record.

If the history of versification in English sonnet tradition does indeed presuppose a metrical bias toward iambic pentameter, then it follows that what motivates technical innovation is variability. All innovations in art, particularly the development of single point perspective during the Renaissance, culturally implicated us in the dialectical process of history. Similarly innovation in the art of poetry redirects the trajectory of human consciousness, therefore dictating the terms of our knowing the world.

Fortune and Solitude and Wittgenstein’s Bestiary

—Fortune and Solitude and Wittgenstein’s Bestiary work in tandem with one another and in many ways they operate as a single work. The material arose out of a preoccupation with visual art, Wittgenstein’s work and life and a continued interest in the medieval bestiary. One model which I found particularly helpful in the composition of Wittgenstein’s Bestiary was Guillaume Apollinaire’s Bestiary, which consists of short epigrammatic poems about animals. In addition I was particularly interested in responding to Wittgenstein’s famous aphorism, “If a lion could talk we could not understand him”. As per Wittgenstein the use of a private language suggests any coherent system must render the particulars to truth. Otherwise we will live under the guise of democracy with its unintelligible object relations to animals. When I am alone a private language appears to me as phenomenon, yet my mind has the capacity to draw a picture to me so as to self correct when deep structures and unregulated ways of asserting the will to power arises.

The poems form a grid of materials from whence a poetics can be derived. This is also the terrain of phenomenology. The observed existence is that subject of the work and the search for an image consists of emotional experiences that make up the claims of the words themselves. We speak more meaning in the narrative of language of liminal subjects. What is described and not necessarily given away as emotional info about me is recollected observations yet, don’t observed operations of the mind determine the subject of the work? “Verbal constructs are experiences” is Wittgenstein’s subject.

What is superstructural about a poetic practice according to Marx? The absence of relation was modeled on a real absinthe spoon by Picasso from over a hundred years ago. Still there is some point of interpolation among phenomenon. To think and possess ideas about poetry is to participate in capital base ownership.

In light of historical/generational signifiers such as how the military industrial complex opened up channels of work force as women shifted from the domestic to the public sectors did capital free markets necessarily mean “equitable certainty”? With assimilation the working woman strove for integration with the mainstream even if it meant accommodation of patriarchal and/or hierarchal values. For example, there seemed to exist a binary split between assimilation and anarchy in the poetic work of a generation of American female poets who rejected going through the correct channels as in committees or even communities of poetic practice. Clearly following Diane DiPrima’s example vis-a-vis her essay “By any Means Necessary” is very inspiring, particularly since the erasure of agency usually associated with “getting your work out there” is counteracted by self determination and community outreach. Having a direct sense of one’s audience is as important as the solitary practice of writing poetry. I also like DiPrima’s epigrammatic sentence, “The requirements of our life is the form of our art”. In plain language rather than seeking new experiences to write about, my current work seems to be centered on the experience of writing itself. I think Diane is talking about how a poet should take advantage of the situation, the requirements of her life, to whatever possible, to get her writing in the world. After visiting the 2012 summer writing program at Naropa University’ “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics”, I began to wonder what sort of material practice was free from ideological bias? How does one go about making one’s poetry practice real in relation to the world? Viewing the 60’s counter-culture from the vantage point of someone born in the early 70’s (Gen-X) was really eye opening, especially the interesting coveys of the New York School Poets, their speech acts and interrogatives.

A few summers ago my friend Lorraine Lupo asked if I enjoyed the poetry of Allen Ginsberg after sending me a postcard of a famous picture of the poet. I think I went through a few periods where I read him quite extensively. I became interested in a concept important to his work which he called the “Eyeball Kick” (eg. Hydrogen jukebox”) similar to what Pound maintained about images as “planes in relation” or what Alfred North Whitehead would term “presentational immediacy” in his much celebrated philosophical work Process and Reality. Over the past couple of summers I’ve been studying up on the sonnet form esp. Edwin Denby’s sonnet sequences, Clark Coolidge’s sonnets as well as those by Bernadette Mayer et al. I remember a lunch I had with my mom nearby the Prado in Madrid—a delicious tapas of fried egg plants drizzled with honey dipped in humus. Now I thought I sort of finally got the opening lines to John Ashbery’s Leaving the Atocha Station:

“The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing

darkness/and pulling us out of there experience it/he

meanwhile…And the fired bats they sell there/dropping form


The poem Leaving the Atocha Station, which as per Richard Howard reaches a “pitch of distraction”, was written after Ashbery’s first trip to Spain with Frank O”Hara. Of “Leaving the Atocha Station” Ashbery states in an interview published in the Michigan Quarterly, “my poems aren’t usually about my experiences because I don’t find my experiences very interesting as a rule. When they are about them, they are so in a very oblique and marginal way… but it strikes me that the dislocated incoherent fragments of images which make up the movement of the poem are probably like the experiences you get from a train pulling out of a station of no particular importance….”

Interesting to think about the idea that a search for a core is itself a core meaning. A feeling that everything is slipping away or being reimagined or what the reclusive and eccentric Joyce scholar Joyce Jon Kidd termed “an infinite loop or revision”.

Consider the following question: how is a poet’s oeuvre distributed over the months of the year? A lifetime? Take Goethe, for example. His most productive years were at age 25, 33, 40, 48, 58, 65, and 72. His creative phases were short while his fallow periods were long. By contrast attending graduate school altered the trajectory of my poetic practice as a form of expression, a Gestaltung, genetic element or infinite line of inflection.

In grad school, for my final thesis, I arranged a sequence of poems collectively titled “In Ten Cities”. In Ten Cities operated as a 10x10 grid of materials in which each section would begin with a spatial relationship within the given context of a different city. I based this spatial formulation on Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. The first section of ten pages was entitled “Ruminations”. At the time an interesting article on Hotels came my way so I incorporated this theme of hotels as a final destination or escape into the first section. Ruminations, I felt seemed to perfectly capture the process of thinking outside a room. Though this project was acceptable as a thesis project, it did not in the end prove to be a viable apparatus for generating new and interesting spatial relationships. However, I did learn, perhaps for the first time to utilize a certain organizational principle for arranging a sequence of poems. This emphasis on arrangement stipulated that each section of the poem must operate both in spatial and semantic terms.

Writing letters to Lorraine Lupo over a period of three years was an extension of our friendship. Also, we engaged in dialogic literary criticism. Every time I sat down to write in response to a letter from Lorraine, not only did I reflect on what was happening in our current lives but also what I had been reading, and what was new in my thinking about poetry. Further, exchanging letters facilitated the kind of voice which is to paraphrase Robert Lowell in his book Imitations, “one voice running through many personalities”, perhaps like a radio dial, different stations, one dial.

I think there are two versions of what it means to be a poet in America. One version is when a poet who is relatively young finds a publisher for work that was created in MFA programs, often poetry that consists of recounting important life experiences with objective distance. Once these poets are published, they begin to promote their work via formal book tours, and readings. After grad school in 2004, I stopped writing until meeting the New York School poet/editor/ publisher Larry Fagin, through whom I was also introduced to Lupo in 2016. For me, she represented a different way of being a poet; She was excited about experimenting and delving into the mystery of poetic creation.

Over the past 14 years from 2009-2023 I have completed the following two chapbooks, Banquet Settings, Not Far From Here, a recently completed full length ms. entitled Kugel (which incorporates the two previous chapbooks) and the most recent chapbook, Time with the Season published by Slacks Press in 2021. “Kugel” originated as a dream of sorts including the German phrasing of “Er hat die Kugel”. I never intended to write this poem as a Paean to the Jewish noodle dish by the same name, but more of a word literally transcribed as a dream. In German“Kugel” has many associations but mainly it means ball or sphere. (Other connotations include Bullet, Christmas Ball, Chocolate as in Mozart Kugel).

Other poems in this ms. include Banquet Settings/Office Settings. These poems were in many ways a response to Roger Shattuck’s seminal study of the turn of the century French Avant-Garde, The Banquet Years. These poems seem to set the tone for the rest of the book with a spare lyric style off set by other types of poems which are more conversational and/or humorous. The first line of Office Settings, “Started a polar expedition with summer clothing/ and maps of Italian Lakes?” was extracted from a passage from Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents”. Yet there is also a joyfulness in Kugel about the kinds of things words can do and even some wistfulness about what they can’t do. After all, “what’s as happy as a word near a word?”

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