Reviewed: The Poetry of Jack Spicer by Daniel Katz

Bard of the Bay Area.

The Poetry of Jack Spicer
Daniel Katz
Edinburgh University Press, 256pp, £24.99

As a poet who has composed volumes of poems, such as Reverdy Road and Mercury (both available from Salt Books), which work as sequences or "books", not as collections of "accessible", loosely separate lyrics (the most fashionable kind of poetry at the present time), it gives me great pleasure to greet Daniel Katz’s The Poetry of Jack Spicer, the first full-length study of the Californian poet’s work. For me, Jack Spicer is the poet I most return to, and have learnt most from, over the last several years of writing.  Spicer’s genius is as the poet of our age by defining the serial poem, taking the book as its unit of composition, and yet his work has remained underrated at best and ignored at worst since his tragically early death at the age of forty after complications from alcohol addiction in 1965. 

Katz’s study follows the chronology of the work and unlocks the troubled and complex originality that is to be found in Spicer’s "books" of poetry. There are many original features to Spicer’s poetry, but perhaps this is the most vital, and probably the one which has provided the barrier for earlier consideration of the poet’s work, outside the world of avant-garde poetry, in this age of the sound bite. It is this insistence that his poetry be read in serial form, or in the unit of the "book" rather than the single, stand-alone lyric (Spicer called his early, lyric poetry "one night stands"), to which Katz’s book provides excellent guidance, through a body of work which ranges from the "translations" and "correspondence" of the first "book" from 1957, "After Lorca", to the linguistic complexities of "Language" and the bitter and serous comedy of the "Book of Magazine Verse," both from 1965.  The fundamental point Katz picks out of Spicer’s work is the form of "correspondence" – whether that be in the relation between individuals, between the individual and politics, or between society and sexual politics (Spicer was gay in an era prior to gay rights), or between, even more radically, the correspondences between poems and books, and between poems across centuries.  Katz picks up on this crucial feature of Spicer’s poetry from the very start:

To some extent, Spicer was simply ahead of his time: his speculations on Emily Dickinson’s manuscript variants and her practice of embedding poems within letters foretells the path-breaking work of Susan Howe in the 1980s, while After Lorca’s implicit dialogue with Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius” anticipates the sort of theoretical work on Pound as translator which has only come to the forefront over the last twenty years or so. 

In this sense Spicer is a pathfinder. He is also cussed and stubborn in his personal life (I’m not sure I’d seek him out as a drinking buddy), and more importantly, in his work.  As Katz points out, "Spicer’s obsessive assault on what he saw as poetic expediency or fashion is also an assault on the notion of the 'timely' itself," and more fundamentally, is Spicer’s move "to champion an avant-garde whose time can never arrive". Spicer’s work will always be out of fashion, on the outside – he even tried to limit the circulation of his later work to the Bay Area of San Francisco where he was living and holding court in the bars, threatening physical violence to those who might profit from these publications. In the little magazine Open Space he declared: "'Open Space' is actual working place, is free, is for the city – it isn’t meant for manuscript collectors or bookdealers who sell it as valuable merchandise – if I find anyone doing that I’ll take bloody action". Looking beyond the macho bravado there is a radical point to this in that Spicer sees poetry as a completely other form of circulation to that of the western capitalist model, and not just as some form of hippy sentimentalism, but poetry is withdrawn, or beyond this kind of exchange, and promises a political as well as an aesthetic model, which speaks to our age more urgently than it did to the post-McCarthyist, pre-Psychedelic moment of the early 1960s.

As Katz highlights, quoting from Spicer’s final poem in the "Book of Magazine Verse", "a political poem, if anyone ever wrote one":

                   What we kill them with or they kill us with (maybe a squirrel rifle)

                            isn’t important.

                   What is important is what we don’t kill each other with

                   And a loving hand reaches a loving hand.

                   The rest of it is

                   Power, guns, and bullets.

Katz’s book is thorough, thoughtful and brilliantly argued, one which I hope won’t be the last extended study of Spicer’s work, but rather marks the beginning of a serious and considered conversation about this troubled and original poet, and will help to assure Spicer the place he deserves alongside other major American poets born into the 1920s such as Frank O’Hara, Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley and John Ashbery.

Jack Spicer tried to limit circulation of his work to the Bay Area (Photo: Getty Images)
Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.