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Ron Silliman


Ron Silliman was born on August 5, 1946 in Pasco, Washington, and raised in Albany, California, north of Berkeley. He attended San Francisco State University, Merritt College, and the University of California at Berkeley between 1965 and 1970 but left in his senior year during the Vietnam War to perform alternate service as a conscientious objector to the draft.

While still in college, Silliman had poems accepted by many of the more traditional journals of the 1960s, including Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest, and Southern Review. By the time he published his first book, Crow, in 1971, however, he had become part of a group of Bay Area poets that later became known as the founders of Language Poetry. Others in the group included Robert Grenier, Barrett Watten, Rae Armantrout, David Melnick, and, as the decade progressed, Clark Coolidge, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman.

Silliman's anthology, In the American Tree (1986), remains a primary resource for readers interested in this literary movement. His book of talks and essays, The New Sentence (1987), is reflective of Language Poetry's interest in critical self-examination. The book's title essay became synonymous with a resurgence of the prose poem, especially in longer formats.

Throughout the 1970s, Silliman worked in activist positions in nonprofit organizations working with prisoners and inner city low-income neighborhoods. After teaching at San Francisco State University, the University of California at San Diego, and New College of California, Silliman became the director of development for the California Institute of Integral Studies, a position he held for several years before taking over as executive editor of The Socialist Review, one of the leading activist journals that emerged in the 1960s.

Since 1974, Silliman has been working on a single poem entitled Ketjak. The title is taken from a Balinese chant performed by a circle of over one hundred men that reenacts a battle from ancient Sanskrit epic the Ramayana. Silliman's Ketjak project is composed of four works: The Age of Huts, Tjanting, The Alphabet, and Universe. With the exception of the book-length poem Tjanting (1981), each of the other projects is also a compilation of texts. Ketjak is also the title of his book-length prose poem published in 1978, which serves as the first section of The Age of Huts, and marked Silliman's emergence as a force in post-avant poetics.

Among his over twenty books of poetry are Crow (1971); ABC (1983); Paradise (1985), which received the Poetry Center Book Award from San Francisco State University; What (1988); Xing (1996); and Woundwood (Cuneiform Press, 2004). He is also the author of a memoir, Under Albany (2004), which was named a book of the year by Small Press Traffic. About Under Albany, the poet Charles Bernstein has said: "This constructivist memoir provides an exquisitely rich exploration of the relation of context to reference, subtext to meaning, back story to presented experience, and composition to poetics. All of Silliman's work unravels and reforms in this exemplary and exhilarating act of attention, recollection, and reflection."

In 2002, Silliman's interest in critical discourse by and for poets led him to create one of the earliest weblogs on the subject of poetry. Within three years, Silliman's Blog had received over 500,000 visitors for its daily examination of poetry, the arts, and contemporary society. Silliman is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, and the Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He has received a Pushcart Prize and been included twice in the Best American Poetry anthology series. Today, Silliman is a principal analyst with Gartner, Inc., an information-technology research organization. Since 1995, he and his family have resided in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Ron Silliman
Photo credit: Jeff Hurwitz

By This Poet


What [The flower sermon]

The flower sermon:
critique is like a swoon
but with a step increase,
the awkward daughter who grows
to join the NBA.  All we want
(ever wanted) was to be on that
mailing list, parties at which slim caterers
offer red, yellow, black caviar
spilling off the triangular crackers
while off on the bay
rainbow-striped sails dip and bob and
twist.  The woman in the yellow raincoat sits
on a bench at the edge of the schoolyard
while two small children race
across the asphalt plaza.  Too many books
sail the moth.  A tooth that's lost
while flossing.  A short line
makes for anxious music.  Not breath
but civilization.  The president
of Muzak himself says
that humming along constitutes time theft.
First snow in the Sierras = cold showers here. 
The east is past.  Margin of terror.  The left
is where you feel it (dragging the eyes back
contra naturum).  We're just in it
for the honey.  Spackling paste
edits nails in wall when painted.  Elbows,
shoulders jammed together on the bus.
At each transfer point, glimpse how lives
weave past.  A woman with an interesting book
in her purse which I pretend not to see.  
Letters crowd into a thought.  Green paper
folded around long-stemmed roses
is stapled shut.  Rapid winter sunset
lacks twilight.  They take out the breast
and part of the lymph system.  I
stare through a lens at the near world.
Hot tea sits dark in its cup.
Seeing is deceiving.  Big tears
are eyes' response
to a dawn chill, first frost.
Clang of empty bottles in a paper sack.
The boulevard was a kind of free verse,
big noun skyscrapers, until the freeway
blew out the margin.  Baseball cap 
with the bill worn to the side or back.
Steam pours plume-like
from the roof of the new
senior tower.  Thus lawn-sprinklers
sweep the air.  This wool hat
itchy on your forehead, those
mysterious white sores
that dot the mouth.
New boots with Leather-Plus uppers
and waffler stomper soles.  The way
gas stations dwindled overnight,
now go the banks: people
huddle in the rain
as close as they can to the wall
lined up for the automated teller.
But I just want to snuggle.
Jumping the curb on my skateboard.  Even
before the war was over, vets
began to fill the J.C.s on the GI bill,
men playing rummy on the quad at lunch.
The way street folk make the sidewalk their bench.
Taking my glasses off, sensing
the muscles in the eye
flex as they refocus.  Cars
at a stop light, each with its own
lone rider.  Standing on the bus,
using both hands to hold on.
The sun in the trees still,
slowly rising.  Beeper on a belt.
The container inverted
shall never be repeated, fungus
in a hot tub.  A swamp entitled
Stanley Marsh.  Black spot
on the thumbnail is permanent.
Neo-social democrat sneaks back
into Lenin closet.  Not
democratic socialist.  Folding chair
triangulates space.  Shirt collar
as mock root for neck's trunk.
Small physical detail
enlarged (enraged)
refocuses the whole room
in the midst of the banquet.
Retrofit theory to text.
The idea of a doorstop
extends the wall.  Thin palms kept trim
along commercial strip.  Hollow is as
garbage truck sounds.  Ghetto barber:
shop behind bars.  Ask bus driver
to call out destination.
Chapped Lip Alert.
Man on a park bench
intent over crossword.
The sound of a piano
hung over the courtyard.  Bliss
approximates emotional state.
Gay nerds (complex style).  Drunk
on the streetcorner snaps to attention,
salutes the slow-cruising black-and-white.
Old manikin in used clothing store,
cheeks chipped, nose missing.  Bin
of loose sneakers in front of shoe shop.
Dreams prod you with their skewed
pertinence.  Like fingering around
in your pocket for a nickel, an
ambiguous coin, with your gloves on.
The pom-pom girl is sucking on a kiwi
as the sun rises, little startled bird.
Carved into nice pink slices, art
history is served
on seaweed-wrapped balls of rice.
At the checkout stand, the bagger
hooks the plastic sack into its wire
mould, dropping in the brown
spotted bananas before
the bottles of cider.
The close-out sale of
fiction at Dalton's
fails to attract 
afficionados from their new
improved "ring" frisbees.
Please don't call it xerox.
Just because it rhymes.  An absence
of form is pictured
on a milk carton.  The dumpsters
are ripe.  The present tense
calls up a terrific nostalgia
foreshadowing antacids.
Can you explain why Ezra Pound
and Ty Cobb were never,
not once, photographed
in the same room together?
The way cryotechnology
accounts for the Rolling Stones.
Heads of cauliflower
wrapped in plastic.  Half moon rising
in the red dusk sky, streetlamps on
illuminating nothing.  Twisting
the orange on
the glass juice squeezer.
Before dawn, alone
in the supermarket parkinglot,
hosing it down.  Van's awning
signals catering truck.  A leaf
had fallen onto the damp cement,
its image sharp years after.
Old green Norton anthology
perfect for doorstop.  Albino mulatto's
curiously blonde hair.  Linebreak muted
says I'm a normal guy.  To generalize
a detail (use of plurals)
entails violence.  Body language
at staff meeting very stiff.
Birds scatter high over
a schoolyard (asphalt
baseball diamond).  My own breath
instead of a lung.  Offhand,
by comments hidden in the brain,
we reiterate an old refrain.
My mind instead of an onion.
That these 20 year olds
call their shared housing
a commune seems quaint.
Old black woman with a cane
struggles to pull herself
onto the bus.  I strain
to see these words.  Chronicle
of Higher Medication.  Learning
that I can't pick my nose when
I read, because the gesture
bumps my glasses.  Our program is
compromise all positions
at all points, radical
at the cash bar.  The colon swells
while the dash is but a double
hyphen.  Thus paint freckles
an old ladder.  Hair, combed
from the part, over the large
bald dome, barely throws
strands of a shadow.  Men huddle
predawn in the vacant lot
for the grey trucks
that will carry them out
into the valley, hot day
harvesting crops.  Yuppie world
where everyone's successful, everyone's
white.  This guy's got great pecs,
strong deltoids, tight
abdominals, but through one nipple --
small gold safety pin.  This poem,
15 lines of free verse, defining
(and as if "as spoken to") a noun
naming a common household object
has been designed
to compete successfully for space
against cartoons in the New Yorker.
Man striding down the street,
whistling loudly.  Now that soft drinks
come in boxes.  The Gift of 
Security, the lock with 1,000
personal combinations: the only
lock in the world that let's you
set your own combination and change it
anytime, in seconds, without tools.
Because friends were coming over
for dinner, they began to think
about cooking in the early afternoon.
The honey in the 5 gal. can
had begun to crystallize, so she
put it in the oven to heat up.
Then a neighbor phoned (the details
here are less certain) and they
went over to smoke some dope
that had just been purchased.
This state expands one's sense
of time, of the moment.  To be
within the present can be
totally sensuous.  When they returned
later, the honey can had exploded,
tearing off the oven door.
Boiling honey (it was just like
napalm) clung to the ceiling,
floor and walls.  


                    For Cliff Silliman

If the function of writing is to "express the world." My father withheld child support. forcing my mother to live with her parents. my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can't afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing "We shall not be moved." My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale's speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle. kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won't read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable1 though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the comer store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan's benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It's not easy if your audience doesn't identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in the lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord's control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-ceIling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry's father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can't read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the harelip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison. a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland in 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus. cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and "in defense" the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.

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