Before you even know what it is, you know it’s heavy as you wrest the package from your mailbox. Then you open it and it see that it is ‘Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics.’ And this edition is going to take on ‘Poetry and Truth.’ This is a little less ambitious than taking on ‘air’ or ‘dirt’ and you have a sense there may be an homage to Charles Olson in there, certainly Goethe, to whom the titles refers.
Fulcrum is an annual poetry magazine edited by two Russians working out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Philip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich and they are quick to trumpet the non-sectarian nature of their aesthetics. Blurbs come from a diverse array of poets from Billy Collins to Michael Palmer, from Charles Bernstein to Marjorie Perloff and Amit Chaudhuri, writing in The Times of India, who rightfully recognizes the cross-cultural nature of Fulcrum Four. But non-sectarian can, and often does, mean that there will be a lot of work here that you just want to skip by after reading a few lines and that happens.
Yes, there is a reference to Goethe in Fulcrum Four, and Olson is referenced by Ed Dorn, but Olson’s ‘Poetry and Truth’ lectures at Beloit College, and his insistence on a cosmological substrate on which poetry must be created will have to wait for another day. What IS here are interviews. Jim Morrison (an underrated poet) opens his Wilderness book (or it is opened for him) with the line: ‘I think the interview is the new art form.’ And anyone who has done interviews, or who has been interviewed, understands the interviewer’s preparation, the skill in the questioning and the level to which the interviewer can keep out of it are key. On the latter, Fulcrum wins, as their Poetry and Truth questionnaire lets poets have the last say. On the former, Fulcrum could have done better, as responses to the questions suggest.
Before I even tackle the theme, I skip ahead in my copy of the magazine to Ed Dorn, caught in September, 1998, about 15 months before he died, and presented in a segment subtitled: ‘The Landscape of Dissent.’ Dorn, rightly bristles at the first question, asking him if he considers himself a ‘landscape poet:’
Nobody could be a landscape poet in the same way that painters are landscape painters. So, I’m not and I don’t know anyone who is… ’
And after he shoots that one down, the tone is set and the shit is stirred so that Dorn gets to take shots at Charles Bernstein and the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics list (comparing him and it to Nazis), and even Democracy. His wife Jennifer even has to inject herself at that one, but the tone has long been set. It is not Ed at his best, but it is Ed nonetheless and it is good to have him here seven years after he has gone on to meet the divine gunslinger.
So as to the title question, we get a variety of responses, some thoughtful, some sarcastic retorts to the impossible nature of the questions. One question is How does poetry relate to the human condition? John Tranter’s response is: ‘How does dentistry relate to the human condition’ and shoots down the notion that poetry has a special relationship to truth.
Elliott Weinberger answers his questionnaire with a parable from 16th century India about a poor but devout farmer who prays to Shiva and is given a poem to present to the King, whose critic rejects the poem and is eventually turned by Shiva into a leper. Lyn Hejinian answers Question #8 ‘What makes a truly great poem?’ with the perfect answer: ‘Genuinely great readers.’ Rosanna Warren suggests that poetry relates to the human condition by being a: ‘dynamic study of endings’ and only Marjorie Perloff really fails this exercise, first by answering all the questions without a hint of humor, but more importantly by stating: “There is no such thing as spontaneous poetry.’ Here she is just plain wrong.
The bulk of the book is the feature on fifty-six Indian poets. These are poets from India or of Indian heritage, not First People, and edited by Jeet Thayil. This section, too, runs the aesthetic gamut, from modernists like Nissim Ezekiel, one of the more prominent poets represented, to formalists like Deepankar Khiwani, to experimentalists like Mini Rao:
… War is a place all thoughts have left. Birds crash when wind caves in. Green salad
fields sprinkled with blood and bone. The cigarette drops from your hand as you
water plants with gasoline…
You know a language well if it does things you don’t have control over. Bring me
the words without meanings, words all meanings have abandoned, sentenced to
Fortunetellers smile in magazine columns. A mystery hero steals the fantasies of
people he likes the look of.
Srikanth Reddy has the longest poem on the artificial language known as Esperanto I have ever seen, as perhaps would ever want to see, suggesting:
… As we speak, Esperanto is being corrupted
by upstart languages such as Interlingua,
Kingon, Java and various cryptophasic tongues.
Our only hope of reversing this trend is to write
the Esperanto epic. Through its grandeur
& homegrown humility, it will spur men
to freeze the mutating patois so the children
of our children’s children may dwell in this song
& find comfort in its true texture & frame…
Bombay’s Eunice De Souza gives us a sense of the culture with the poem Miss Louise:
She dreamt of descending
ivory fan aflutter
of children in sailor suits
and organza dresses
till the dream rotted her innards
but no one knew:
innards weren’t permitted
in her time…
There is at least one rant, courtesy of Arundhathi Subramaniam, entitled:
To the Welsh Critic Who Doesn’t
Find Me Identifiably Indian
You believe you know me,
wide-eyed Eng Lit type
from a sun-scalded colony,
reading my Keats – or is it yours –
while my country detonates
on your television screen…
and ends with:
Teach me how to belong,
the way you do,
on every page of world history.
Calcutta’s Mamtla Kalia offers shorter poems, such as:
Against Robert Frost
I can’t bear to read Robert Frost.
Why should he talk of apple-picking
When most of us can’t afford to eat one?
I haven’t seen an apple for many months-
Whatever we save we keep for beer
There he was flirting away
With the fastest would-be artist
While I was sulking on this New Year’s Eve
When I asked him what he thought of loyalty
He laughed, ‘don’t expect dog’s virtues from a full-limbed man’
Like American poets, editor Thayil reminds us that the ironic is preferred over the heartfelt, and I was warned by an elder poet around here that one could expect high irony from Fulcrum, or any other contemporary poetry magazine. Is it the best we can get from people lost in the halls of academia? Quite often, yes. But the beauty in a magazine like Fulcrum lies in bridging gaps. And the gap between most speakers of English and those of Indian heritage writing in English is huge, but narrowing. Try calling for computer assistance and you’ll likely to get help from someone in New Delhi or Mumbai who may not know who’s playing in the World Series. But like the magazine itself, from the special section you’ll get a variety in which you’ll find at least a few poets whose work hits you, like C.P. Surendran, born into a family of leftist intellectuals in Ottapalam, a small town in North Kerala, who offers:
First thing in the morning
He trips on the one chair in his room.
He opens the windows
And a teacup falls like a head axed.
The toothbrush slips from His fingers
And, then, the newspaper.
Too much gravity in here, he tells his cat,
And lies down on the floor.
The selection on Indian poets ends strong with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra who, is said to write: ‘coded messages from the unconscious, but there is an exceedingly conscious hand that crafts them’. In Genealogy, Mehrotra writes:
Only once did I twist the monotonous pendulum
To enter the rituals at the bottom of twelve seas,
Unghostlike voices curdled my blood, the colour
Of my scorpion changed from scarlet
To scarlet. I didn’t mean to threaten you
Or disturb your peace I know nothing of,
But you who live in fables, branches,
And, somehow, icebergs, tell me whose seed I carry.
And lastly, Arun Kolatkar, who is quite Williams-esque. It is WCW and not Olson who seems to hover over these pages more than anyone else, as Williams was a correspondent with at least one other poet in this collection, Srinivas Rayaprol and an influence on Kolatkar, who died in 2004 and is the kind of poet I find myself wanting more of. He gets several pages at the end of Fulcrum Four, including a dog’s eye view selection from:
This is the time of day I like best,
and this is the hour
when I can call this city my own;
when I like nothing better
than to lie down here, at the exact center
of this traffic island
(or trisland as I call it for short,
and also to suggest
a triangular island with rounded corners)
that doubles as a parking lot
on working days,
a corral for more than fifty cars,
when it’s deserted early in the morning,
and I’m the only sign
of intelligent life on the planet;
the concrete surface hard, flat and cool
against my belly,
my lower jaw at rest on crossed forepaws;
just about where the equestrian statue
must’ve stood once, or so I imagine.
that the time has come for me
to surrender the city
to its so-called masters.
There is such effortlessness in his short lines, and, in the Williams tradition, a visceral imagery which lets the scene do the talking, as in the poem The Ogress, too long to reprint here, but written in such a way that it comes across as a short poem, though it’s about 150 lines.
The lines of poetry have blurred. What’s avant garde or post-modern these days, or are we post-post-modern? Fulcrum’s editors know the schools and labels only get in the way of the work, like any attempt at control, so they have created a viable marketplace for poetic ideas that are worthwhile for anyone wishing to get a sampler of world poetry from which to find gems we would likely have missed or overlooked. While they could stand to brush up on their interview prep, they do so much right they deserve a careful look.