July Art Squirrel

Several apparently unconnected events connected themselves recently, or maybe I’m just glomming them together, but no matter: first, my lovely wife came to tell me there was an injured squirrel at the bottom of our driveway. Injured it was, seemed its back was broken, so though it tried desperately to get away from me, it only ended up spinning itself in a circle, like Curly did in the Three Stooges, but with the added horror of a broken spine. I had to run an errand, so I lifted the squirrel onto the grass where it would be a bit more comfortable and where I wouldn’t run over it with my car. The image of the squirrel spinning itself stayed with me as I drove downtown, coloring everything I saw: a woman crying into a cell phone, another woman crying and sitting on the steps of a church, a man limping down the sidewalk in front of the hospital for a smoke, a geeking kid in a doorway searching the empty street… I’m sure I passed happier scenes, but these were the ones I noticed, seeing the squirrel changed what my mind was letting in, altered the emotional locus of what I saw. I got home and my wife had put the squirrel in a box with some cotton and newspaper and bits of apple, and we kept him alive for 3 or 4 days, trying to find a place that might take him; by the time we found someone, the squirrel was dead, so we buried him, and the process of caring for it and then burying it seems to have freed my vision somewhat, allowing me to see more than just pain and futility and anger.

The squirrel stopped trying to get out of the box after the first day or two and resigned himself to being fed and watered by big, scary, enemy-of-the-squirrel type creatures. He stopped, in other words, being squirrely, which to my mind has always meant twitchy, erratic in a way that denotes something wrong, like the twitchy geeker I saw in the doorway—jonesing addicts are squirrely, and observation of the more mobile squirrels in my yard attest to the aptness of the metaphor. The slang use of squirrely apparently derived from the animal’s conceptual proximity to nuts, hence defining the word as eccentric, odd, strange… but these are all characteristics that I generally find admirable, especially in artists, and my own definition is pejorative, the difference between someone acting kooky and someone acting kooky because they are desperate, broken, inhabited by voices—and  need not even mean acting odd, come to think of it, only acting in a way that makes the actor stand out as trying too hard, overplaying their role, being creepily lascivious, spinning around in a circle trying to get away because their back is broken but they still believe they are whole, or are slick enough to charm people into ignoring the whole broken back thing, or because they thing everyone else is too dumb to notice. That’s a lot for one word to handle, I suppose, but I’ve been using the term for a while now and hadn’t thought enough about it, and I started thinking about it because of the squirrel in the driveway and because of Bill Knott.

Let me back up a bit. Until fairly recently, I made a little extra money doing book reviews. Most of the books I was assigned (or requested) I didn’t care for, though a few were excellent; writing reviews of books you don’t like is a sport many people enjoy, and I must admit I did find it fun for a while, but eventually the sheer volume of books I didn’t even dislike enough to want to write about became daunting, it was coloring my ability to enjoy reading the way seeing the squirrel at the end of the driveway made my mind see sadness and pain everywhere. Well, sadness and pain are everywhere, and so are bad books, but so are good books, and so is joy and kindness, so I stopped writing reviews. The same day that I found the squirrel at the end of the driveway, a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a a few months emailed to ask me what I had against Bill Knott, which confused me, since I’ve never met him, but further discussion revealed that my friend had downloaded one of Knott’s books to read, and it includes in the front matter excerpts of a review I’d done of one of Knott’s books several years ago. Knott has been releasing books for free and via Lulu for a while now, which is a move I heartily commend, but he also has been cultivating an image as a poetry iconoclast, or something; basically, he collects snippets of bad reviews and uses them as self-promotional material, hangs out on well-travelled blogs (unlike this one) making snarky, obtuse, or genial comments, and generally tries to keep his poetic brand afloat by asserting his proto-hipster contrariness as a measure of value—look, if all these people think I suck, then I must be cool, kinda like PBR.

The snippet of mine he likes to use is this: “[Bill Knott’s poetry is] queerly adolescent . . . extremely weird. . . personal to the point of obscurity. . . his idiosyncrasy has grown formulaic, his obscure poems more obscure, his terse observations so terse they scoot by without leaving much of a dent in the reader. . . . There is a petulance at work [in his poetry]. . . . [H]is style has grown long in the tooth. . . . In fact, [Knott is] unethical.”—Marc Pietrzykowski, Contemporary Poetry Review, 2006(http://www.cprw.com/Pietrzykowski/beats.htm). Kyle Minor calls them anti-blurbs, and says that taking them out of context and eliding large chunks of the review “[…]seems to be part of his project,” which is his way of defending the practice, I guess. I don’t have a problem with Knott using my words*, they were paid for and published and he’s free to what he wants with them, but “his project,” if you go and read any of the original reviews, mine included, is plain squirrely, a desperate attempt at attracting attention to himself while trying to distract the reader from the fact that he has been spinning his wheels poetically since the 1970’s, which was more or less the point of my review. He also likes to claim that focusing on the way he sells himself is annoying, and that he would rather reviewers focused on the poems, which is also squirrely, since he has gone to such lengths to sell himself; it’s a bit like yelling “look at me!” and then playing the victim when no one will stop looking at you. For the record, Bill, it’s not the “project” that saddens me, or even interests me beyond this blog post, it’s the poems, which are increasingly disappointing for anyone who has read your work for a while. In any case, these events have made me think about what I should do to commemorate their confluence, and the answer I came up with was the awarding of a monthly prize to some artist who I noticed doing something squirrely, as a way to clean out my vision without suffocating in ugliness. So, Bill Knott, congratulations on being awarded July’s 2011’s Art Squirrel Award.

Now, let’s see how often he googles himself.

CDs listened to this month (as I continue listening to all the ones I own, in random order): 469) Randy Newman: Good Old Boys; 470) The Charlatans: Up To Our Hips; 471) Kronos Quartet: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind; 472) Otis Rush: The Essential Otish Rush; 473) Sidney Bechet: En Concert avec Europe 1; 474) Julian Cope: Peggy Suicide; 475) The Wipers: Is This Real?; 476) Cibo Matto: Type A; 477) Los Lobos: Ride This.

*Though I would like to point out that in the quoted review I claimed one of his poems was unethical, not that the author was, because the poem in question made a stupid ethical assertion (beat writers sucked because they used gas-powered cars to travel the country; the ethics of asserting yourself countercultural hence depend on not using gasoline) that implicates the author as well. Maybe “ethical” is not the right word…