The assertion that the poetic "self" is necessarily a linguistic construct is a central tenet for all post-modern writers, but few have explored its lyric residue as productively as Lisa Jarnot has.
Ms. Jarnot, who is the featured reader at Just Buffalo Literary Center's first "BIG NIGHT!" event of 2011 at 8 tonight in the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk St.), is a Buffalo-area native who has become a leading voice in innovative poetries and poetics as well as a significant presence on the New York City poetry scene.
"It would be difficult for me to talk about my identity as a writer without acknowledging first my identity as a reader," wrote Jarnot in her essay "On Identity," prepared for a 1998 St. Mark's Poetry Project symposium. "What I learned to do early in life, as a survival mechanism of sorts, was to invent a self, or a composite of selves, as if my own life was formed out of a distant memory of who all the other versions of me had been throughout the history of my kind."
Born in Buffalo in 1967, those early years were spent with her family in the Southtowns, where Jarnot spent every Saturday and much of her summers reading voraciously at the Angola Public Library, and as a pre-adolescent and teen, adopting a number of quixotic role models: Abraham Lincoln, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and perhaps most totemically, Bob Dylan. "It was around this time that I began wearing a harmonica holder around my neck, even to the grocery store, and it was around this time that I began to write poems," Jarnot recalls.
Jarnot attended the University at Buffalo as an undergraduate, where she studied with poet and then UB Gray Chair Professor Robert Creeley, and became part of a generation of singularly talented poets -- a group that also included Peter Gizzi, Elizabeth Willis, Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman and Kristin Prevallet -- to come under the influence of "language-centered" writing and the arrival of prominent Language poets Charles Bernstein (the co-founder of the UB Poetics Program) and Susan Howe at UB in the late 1980s.
She subsequently attended Brown University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing in 1992, and was drawn toward the New York City poetry scene, where she quickly became a fixture, coordinating the celebrated reading series at the Ear Inn, and editing the St. Mark's Poetry Project Newsletter in the late 1990s. Since 1995, she has been an assistant professor of English at Long Island University, and a visiting lecturer at a number of universities, including the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Jarnot is the author of four full-length collections of poems, "Some Other Kind of Mission" (Burning Deck Press,1996), "Ring of Fire" (Zoland Books, 2001/ Salt Publishers, 2003), "Black Dog Songs" (Flood Editions, 2003) and "Night Scenes" (Flood Editions, 2008), as well as eight additional chapbooks. She has edited two notable small literary magazines, "No Trees" (1987-1990) and "Troubled Surfer" (1991-1992), and co-edited (with Leonard Schwartz and Chris Stroffolino) "An Anthology of New (American) Poets," a consequential anthology of younger poets working primarily in innovative forms, published by Talisman House Books in 1998.
Jarnot has often spoken and written of her work as collage-like in its process and aesthetics. Like many of her peers who began publishing at the advent of language-centered writing as an insurgent form challenging the mainstream literary and academic cultures, her early work -- particularly in "Some Other Kind of Mission" and "Ring of Fire" -- tends to be more radically disjunctive and fragmentary, as if to underscore its discontinuities and dissonances, and its clean break with both narrative and lyric traditions.
Her more recent work, however, imports many of the tropes of traditional English verse, classical motifs and references after the fashion of Charles Olson or Robert Duncan, and a keen ear for contemporary American idiomatic speech to compose soundscapes, riffs and visual word structures that -- while still collagist in spirit -- move toward some recombinent lyric and musical forms. So, too, the question of the ego or "self" in poetry, so flagrantly raised by the "confessional" poetry of the 1960s and 1970s, is reconfigured by Jarnot in her eponymously titled poem "Lisa Jarnot" from her collection "Black Dog Songs":
When you do grow up
you’ll be able to write
poems and things will be
like they are now,
except there will be
more sardines, and all the
grilled cheese sandwiches
on white bread will move
away and it may still snow
on cold nights when the
dogs bark, wrestling in
the dark, but all the stars
are the same, and you
are the same, still wavering
in the hall light, unbridled
light not dark.
Like her erstwhile hero, Bob Dylan, she's a cultural anthropologist turned songwriter, a bit mysterious in her methods, but always capable of aesthetic surprises. As she wrote in her essay on identity: "What I learned from those early heroes was what I had intuited from childhood, that one's identity existed as one's invention, and that as a creative person, one's identification and explanation of the self might always be in flux, like the whole of the universe is in flux, existing as a place of multiple possibilities, dependent only upon one's attentions to the messages arriving from the outside."
For the better part of the past decade, Jarnot who now lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her husband Thomas Evans annd their daughter Beatrice, has been at work on a much-anticipated biography of the Black Mountain College and San Francisco Renaissance poet Robert Duncan. After several delays, "The Ambassador from Venus: A Comprehensive Biography of Robert Duncan" is slated for publication later this year by the University of California Press.
Not your typical "ivory tower" poet-scholar, Jarnot is also a freelance horticulturist, a licensed New York City Citizen Pruner, and is the owner of Catskill Organics Farm, which sells organic soaps, garden plants and other organic products.
Joining Jarnot on the "BIG NIGHT" program will be three artists -- Drew Matott, Chris Arendt, and Margaret Mahan -- involved in the Combat Paper Project, an organization that utilizes artmaking workshops to assist longtime and returning veterans in reconciling and sharing their personal experiences and broadening the traditional narrative surrounding military service in our culture. There will also be sets of music by the Buffalo-based experimental folk/rap band Jack Topht and the Vegetables and food by gourmet chef and BlazeVox Books publisher Geffrey Gatza. Admission is $5, but free to members of Just Buffalo and WNYBAC.