[This event took place on March 10, 2010]
Report by Alice Whitwham
“I’ve never even been to a reading here,” Stephanie Young said, stepping up to the podium. She was nervous, but excited – New York is a bigger place than Oakland. “I’m also deeply over-stimulated. ”
Young began with the first poem from Picture Palace, a collection which, as Stacy pointed out, quoting Stan Apps, engages with memoir “as process rather than product.” The Gaston Bachelard epigraph – “We are unable to relive duration that has been destroyed” –was followed by Young’s qualification: “And yet it has not been / I set out to write a memoir / a plot of originary relation.” Young’s refreshing, immediate excitement gave the next sequence of lines an energy – a kind of pressure that pushed against the constraints of a frustratingly resistant syntax:
One church is a building on Wadsworth Ave.
[…] one opens onto a series of schools
One is a marriage, itself having taken place inside another church
One is the father’s workweek […] church that supports the other churches.
One thought she-child could eventually step outside. She found she could not.
A pause followed. The audience still. The list of church, schools, marriage, wages—opening into, enclosing, supporting each other—confronted us as a system as rigidly constructed as the lines themselves; the anaphora felt inflexible, stilted, the sentences caught on a repetitive loop. The monotony of the sequence only made the possibility of escape seem more remote. Ending in the she-child’s disappointment, it felt like a disappointment I had already been anticipating.
Following this plotting of structures that contain, construct, constrict, Young brought us closer to the she-child’s attempt to position, and reposition herself within them. What occurred was a giddy-making shift from hopefulness: “Instead she found it everywhere. Repetitive arrangements with more than one side” to suspicion: “But she couldn’t stick with it either; couldn’t ‘spelunk.’” What was that? Spelunk? Either excitedly diffuse, or awkwardly disoriented, the she-child seemed to be losing it.
[This event took place February 5, 2010]
Report by Lauren Russell
Before introducing Joanna Fuhrman, Stacy Szymaszek called our attention to a “silver three” on the ceiling of the Parish Hall. Startled, I looked up to find an aluminum balloon of the flower shop variety, mysteriously emblazoned with the number “3.” The presence of this integer made me think of my high school English teacher, a former radio talk show host who marked me down for including original ideas in my essays and insisted on the intrinsic significance of threes — three witches in Macbeth, three Mary’s at the Resurrection, three parts to any story.
It was a relief then, to listen to Joanna Fuhrman’s poems, which constantly defy any such ordered explication. Wearing a purple blouse with a gold v-neck embellishment and matching pink and purple stockings, Fuhrman began with a poem from her third book, Moraine. A moraine, she told us, is the expanse created when a glacier has passed. As a poetic structure, it’s an excuse to throw all kinds of stuff together, which, she continued, meant that the poem she was about to read was not really a moraine at all.
“Moraine for Bob” is one of my favorite love poems, as it speaks not of what the self and the beloved are, but rather what they are not, through a series of wonderfully strange statements. If I hadn’t misplaced my copy in a recent move, I would cheat and type the exact lines, but at the reading, I scrawled down a couple: “I was never a paper doll in the pyromaniac sense of a pal” and “You were never a word in the mystic sense of an obstacle.”
Following “Moraine for Bob,” Fuhrman transitioned to poems from her latest book, Pageant — poems, Stacy Szymaszek said in her introduction, that “appreciate elaborate presentation while exposing artifice.” Fuhrman wrote the poem “You Don’t Mean that Gesture,” she told us, after the second George Bush election (I assume she meant the second election of the second George Bush….too many seconds.). The poem features a gleefully sadistic house. “Ha ha ha ha he he he he he, said the bellicose walls as they spun toward the walls of the dictator’s house.”
She followed this up with the poem “On Some Gossip Overheard at the Meritocracy Bar and Grill,” which generated much laughter from the audience. “Now the rich are no more real than the non-rich,” Fuhrman read, “who wait for the F train to take them to their jobs as pedicab drivers or Adjunct Assistant Blindfolded Archery Professors at nomadic colleges.” Fuhrman read with consideration for pacing and tone, one hip slightly cocked to the side. By the end of the poem, the rich have “dropped into the muddy puddle they like to call ‘The Soul,’ copyright 2006, patent pending.” As she read “The Soul,” Fuhrman’s eyes rolled upward, and you could hear the quotation marks in her voice.
[This event took place Wednesday, November 3, 2009]
Report by Nada Gordon
Edwin Torres was stylin’ in his official MTA pop lettrist NY School subway socks and fine loud maybe zinnia print shirt in shades of burgundy, pumpkin, scarlet, neon cantaloupe, and 50s aqua on a warm cream background. I watched him psych up gathering energy to be, as Stacy quoted him in her introduction, “sincere in [his] weirdness.”
Once at the podium all that gathered and focused energy sprung out in his rhythms and, in the initial poem, in / ^ / sounds. It seemed an address or response to a child: sucking, cup, child, and duct were some of the phonemes he lingered over here. These were, in his words, “brokens laced together by brokens,” and I confirmed my sense that Edwin is the sort of poet-presence who could stand up and read a phone book, so attentive is he to language sounds and ways of performing them to maximize and energize meaning.
This first poem was in the mode of a kind of child’s story, but not in any kind of infantilized way. He intoned parts of it in keys that kept modulating upwards, and that was beautiful. “A shape snailed in the curries.” There was something, I thought, a little old-timey classic Steinian about Edwin’s way of working, its associativeness, how each line took a hint from the previous and transformed: “so I take another step.”
Next was his version of “I Remember,” but with a mischievous twist. Most memory-sections ended with some variation of the exclamation, “what a cute spic!” I loved how this was both discomfiting and true, for isn’t that kind of what one thinks encountering Edwin, although maybe not exactly in those terms? Can I say that? It’s a complex statement, auto-infantilizing, charmingly self-regarding, epithet-neutralizing, ironic but also not ironic, and I can’t imagine anyone but Edwin presenting and defamiliarizing it the way he did, never the same way twice, and always unexpected, nestled at the end of sections that included phrases like “I remember the audience levitating in the middle of a poem” and “wrapped up in the viral opportunity of a cute spic.” The lines were way too long to write down, but there was something about a writing machine, something about skin color; I couldn’t keep up with transcription, and I loved that, because, you know…
…subtraction and erasure and minimalism do very little for me (ha!). It is just my nature to always want more and more and more, and the whole evening, both Edwin’s and Will’s poems were exercises in, meditations on, agglutination and accretion.
What accrued in the next poem was moths, lots and lots of them, in this poem that was so visual it was almost like a screenplay. First there was only one moth and then several moths “eating special sidewalk bugs” then hundreds of them fluttering around on the sidewalk. I could tell that Lee Ann Brown liked the moths. I heard her make some noises indicating as much, and recalled a conversation she and I had had about the figure of the moth in Bernadette’s writing, how the moth is a kind of muse or symbol of muse, and the moth is also mouth and mother.
Next Edwin read a flarfed-up address to Allen Ginsberg celebrating their “unrequited bromance”; I wondered if this was Edwin’s translation of Ginsberg’s address to Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California.” The brilliance flowed thick and fast here: “Emily Dickinson bedsheets,” “unformed Unicorns,” and “Christian Bök umlauts”: again, too fast for transcription but not too fast to amuse and charm.
“Song of the Red Lamb” he read like blues or gospel, but not singing: on the edge of song: “who lives on that lamb red leg?” Echoes for me of blues masters, Tracie Morris, and oddly, Eraserhead, and it turned almost towards the end into a train beggar’s chant.
It got druggier. The whole evening was gloriously druggy, but the next piece Edwin read really put me into an altered state. He read a piece full of spelling mistakes, respecting the spelling mistakes and elevating them into some kind of other world, a space of druggy art: “What ig you had a privet club– What if yiz was a nark chen – Menartade the pump of my duz– your freebaloo” (these misspellings are of course approximated) everything half deformed, with just enough of something to hang on to. Towards the end Edwin moved into a funny whispery voice– every phoneme COUNTED even though only half comprehensible and I felt like I was underwater but perhaps I’m too easily inducted into that space, because I so much want to be there, near that “lamb red leg” because “Audrey has flat feet.”
If Will Alexander’s fashion statement was muted (black baseball cap with no logos, black jacket and pants, olive sweater), his poetry was not, and neither were his preambles to the poetry, which sounded to me like a combination of preaching and auto-consolation:
“We must break the plane… move with vertical insistence [toward the] …rediscovery of the human being”
“Words have energies in sound and look,” he said, that are sometimes “painterly” and it was in a 1957 dictionary that he found the word “loxodrome,” and he decided to make that word a name of a sailor. A few unconnected lines from the first section he read:
“a riddled scorpion typhoon”
“a stinging pottery of nerves”
“kino synthetic shockwaves”
“a body below the simulation of the trilobites”
“be it the pelvic whale or the caudal dolphin”
The sailor, I began to realize, was absolutely navigating through vertical layers of undiscovered planes – as Stacy had said in her introduction, on “a trajectory of potentia” and “[with] accretion through unprecedented structure.” Every line was exploratory, Loxodrome a kind of “vulpine” “oneiric” “sea wasp.” “He exists at nervous solitary limit.”
Will said in another interlude that poems come to him “not so much as flashes but as seepage… a murmuring always going on at the oddest times and the oddest moments… kind of like the cosmos.” (Here I heard Erica Hunt exclaim, “yeah, right!”) He continued… “That’s not outer space: we’re outer space…. most people don’t know where the Orion Spur is in the universe: we’re on it.”
Lines from “Nexus of Phantoms”:
“In a lorikeet cave”
“the swans looking back on solemn blood perusal”
“the scent of each lorikeet is consumed & brought to dazzling eclipse”
…and throughout I had the sense of cosmic (im)possibility.
The next preamble was on water and the infinity of water. We are, Will said, “always walking around with water,” and it is “all one flow.” He mentioned an “occlusionary consciousness” but I don’t know what he meant by that… perhaps that it is obstructed? or obstructing? and called water a “dysphoric medium,” but again I wasn’t sure why, as surely it is not only dysphoric unless we drown in it or are lost on it or if it is pressing on our brains and stressing us out. Anyway.
He stood with a wide stance, as if in second ballet position. I don’t know why I noticed that or what that meant, except that its rootedness was somehow in contrast with the wildly interstellar nature of his verse. He spoke of the “dark conduction of saliva.”
He continued, “Seepage transpires… beyond what you know…sometimes toward a deeper understanding of what you already know.”
The next poem he read was called “The Optic Wraith.” Some lines:
“tortured hummingbird’s sortie”
“a sun in a squandered maelstrom house”
“each of my shadows collects around a pole of a fierce & blazeless assessment”
“harems of spittle”
“pariah plunged through psychotic mirages”
and I thought to myself, you know, this poetry is very interesting almost as artifact. He writes as if Objectivism, the New York School, Language Poetry, and the internet had never happened. Its mysticism almost seems quaint. There is no body in it, nothing personal, no obvious intertextuality, and absolutely no irony at all. Instead it is a relentless orientalist surrealism, a grammatical exercise in endless appositives that aim to extend perception the way nested phrases in a diagrammed sentence send the mind off into various diagonal directions.
Another preamble: “we are taught not to think but to respond… poets and people of depth take this on, this energy.” He quoted Bob Kaufman, whom he called the founder of the Beats, as saying that the poet works a 24-hour shift, and said that we are “saturated with this whole continuum…this whole range of awareness.”
“God a philosophical Torment”
“beyond the scope of oppositional turquoise”
“subsumed in the body with a rudderless experience”
“Poetry,” he said, is “such an intense listening experience… so I try to keep it compact.” Compact? No, that is the last word I would use for his poetry. He continued, “Nero went on so long one of the audience members had a baby.” Will did kind of go on for a long time. I almost had a baby, but instead decided to get up and stretch. Those chairs at the Project are a torment for me, sort of concave at the back, ouch. He went on speaking about the long poem, how it “speaks at different levels.” Poetry is, he said “a living conduction.”
“ambit of an iris transcribing its folios in trance”
“a brackish melancholia”
“an epileptic maharajah” [this rhymed internally with pasha and noxious]
“pre-Columbian gerbils” [Drew Gardner wrote this down, visibly delighted. He also wrote down “A mongoose can love,” which struck me as a perfect Drew line]
“a fetid indigo dalliance”
His last line pretty much encapsulated his poetics, uncharacteristically compactly:
“the electrical route of 100 solar masses”
Well, even if I did get a little antsy towards the end, this was truly one of those rare readings where I felt myself in the presence of two poets who are ALWAYS ON DUTY working that 24-hour shift, totally present to those “murmurings” and “seepages” that are the stuff of our art. To me, Edwin’s poems are more considered as form, in that they frequently have some sort of axis from which exude parallel but varying structures, and in that each poem makes a formal statement somehow different from every other poem. Will, on the other hand, seems to be tapping into one immeasurably huge poem, of which the shorter pieces seem to be sampled segments. Still, the force and immensity of his project are undeniable, and both poets managed, in only about two hours, to open multiple doors to multiple worlds. I salute them both.
[This event took place Wednesday, October 21, 2009]
Christopher Nealon and Catherine Wagner came together on this mild autumn night to read for a smallish but attentive audience. It was an auspicious pairing; both are confident, compelling readers whose writing styles complement one another.
Stacy Szymaszek started the evening by introducing Christopher Nealon, who, she told us, has been “compared…to O’Hara distracted by Bears Stearns.” When Nealon began to read from his books – first from The Joyous Age (Black Square Editions)– I could hear O’Hara clearly in them: funny, erudite, seemingly “off-the-cuff” but clearly carefully sculpted and bitingly insightful. Here are a few of the lines that hit me most forcefully; most of them drew laughs or little grunts of appreciation from the audience, too:
“I’m not crazy, right? The police are not the heroes?”
“Rise up, California. I’m tenured. I’m useless. I’m ready.”
“I enjoy the voice of the Prophet. It has a neighborhood feel to it.”
“I have this feeling that all my sexual fantasies are actually just breathing exercises.”
Nealon then turned to Plummet (Edge Books), his more recent book. Some of the gems I scribbled down from this book are as follows:
“I am not gay; I am from the future.”
“Dude, I’m not gonna steal your acorn.”
“I think your poem is hot.”
“You walk toward it wearing antlers, and on to Pennsylvania.”
And my personal favorite, a reference to Jake Gyllenhaal’s sexy naked-with-Santa-hat dance in the film “Jarhead”:
“Jake Gyllenhaal, you are inconceivably beautiful, even in that Santa hat.”
I couldn’t agree more. Nealon was charming and relaxed in between poems; he provided commentary only when it was necessary, and for the most part he allowed the poems to speak for themselves, which they did, beautifully.
The lines above, plucked out of their context as they are, may not do justice to the overall impression I had of Nealon’s work, but they should give a sense of the balance he strikes between a casual offhandedness and an attention to the careful tuning of the line. What I heard as an audience member were drily funny meditations (tinged with sadness, solemnity) on life in the modern urban world, and Nealon’s delivery style couldn’t have showcased the poems to greater effect.
Stacy Szymaszek, in her black Buddha-emblazoned t-shirt, returned to the podium to introduce Catherine Wagner. She talked about Wagner’s “singular[ity]” and her “removal of inhibitions” – hers and ours – while, appropriately, referencing Freud. She made an apt comparison of Wagner to Lorine Niedecker – if Niedecker “had…kept a secret sex diary,” that is – because of Wagner’s ability to use rough, raw language in tightly tuned lines.
Wagner started by singing “This Land is Your Land,” a poem from her first book, Miss America, as a way of thanking Lee Ann Brown (in the audience) for first suggesting that she sing some of her poems. She then went on to read (and sing) a few poems from Macular Hole.
Some of the lines that hit me were:
“I’m the control and the experiment bothly / you’ll never get a result out of me”
“My guilt is omnipotence erupting backwards”
“When you ask, when you ask / you pull back the healing scab / you permit the lie, you drain the bath / you air the unsealed meat”
Wagner’s reading style is both welcoming and unnerving; she has clearly (nearly) memorized most of her poems, and maintains fairly steady eye contact with the audience as she reads or sings. She reads at a carefully measured pace (as did Nealon), and she has complete control of the room. The only sound, in fact, was of her son, Ambrose, munching crackers (very quietly, but still audibly) as he watched her perform.
Wagner moved on to read from her just-released book, My New Job (Fence Books). I had just bought the book before the reading, so I didn’t know any of the work and was eager to hear it read.
She read from one section, “Hole in the Ground,” which begins with an epigraph (that Wagner sang) from a folksong: “Like a mole in the ground I would root that mountain down / I wish I was a mole in the ground.” She read some of the poems, sang others, and I felt that I was involved in this “singular” voice’s processing of the various experiences of the world – sex, love, work, motherhood, etc. – which she approaches with a dynamic curiosity and a rich and strange sense of humor. Wagner works language to the max. Here were some of my favorite lines from this section:
“Fill the / chick and filler well of ding ding dong.”
“Let me eat your face, neighbor / Who owns the Bagel and Deli on High”
“I dare you to give me pleasure. / THAT IS NOT HOW THAT IS NOT HOW / I’ll show you.”
Also from this section, Wagner sang “Song,” which is literally a penis and vagina song (and Stacy Szymaszek’s favorite poem in the book) that begins:
“Penis regis, penis immediate, penis / tremendous, penis offend us; penis / ferule us, penis, protrude from us”
Wagner finished with the poem, “My New Job.” She punctuated her reading with gestures at appropriate times, so that she was really performing the poem, not just reading it. I had the sense, from hearing and then later reading the poem, of the speaker transforming, floating away from her old body, her old self, and being born again into a strange new body that she herself has created, one that is mechanical, huge, and crudely made. But the poem also resonates with the strangeness of being in any body at all. Wagner makes the familiar new and unsettling in lines like, “I picked myself apart With a fork / Connected a wire Where my belly was / Coiled up the plug / The prongs poke hurt.”
Before Wagner read “My New Job,” she joked that it was “an hour long.” I would have happily stayed there for the duration, and I’m certain I would not have been alone.
[This event took place on Wednesday, October 28, 2009]
Body language is useful. We submit and control through this – our tongues caught in the spin cycle. Yet the larynx seems to have the spotlight when it comes to text and sometimes the work can go to our heads – literally. In order to speak about connectivity and community, Robert Glück and Eileen Myles used text as body language. Each gesture they made was used to say something about our bodies and how we see our anatomies at work.
Robert Glück opened with a story from About Ed. The narrator says he was “made of glass”.
Not fragile, but that everyone could see inside of him – they knew just how badly he needed to be touched.
“We were the center”, he says, telling the story of Ed’s first sexual experience through Ed’s voice. His partner asking him (with his tongue still nestled in Ed’s anus) to “slit on ma ace.” Ed didn’t understand him until his partner paused, enunciated, “shit on my face”. Ed’s body followed as if to a “master”.
The room laughed.
The laughter wasn’t nervous, but joyous, reveling in what’s left of our bodies after wearing them down for so long with language – the common thread of a first.
We were in safe hands.
Glück smiled and continued. He moved into the next piece “The Moon is Brighter than the Sun.”
What happens when a body we knew is gone? What happens when a new body takes shape? The narrator’s body seems as if a stranger with the loss of Ed and the birth of his child. What is to be done with what’s left of us in his place, the ones in the middle of life?
Even earth seems suspect: “Earth does not mean our world, Planet Earth, it means dirt, burial – as death is full.” Glück becomes obsessed with a quote from Frank O’ Hara after Ed’s death, trying to parse out why it only comes to him now. He repeats to himself “Is the earth as full, as life was full, of them?” He grapples with what life means in this absence and how to write about it: “If language is alienating, that familiar alienation is who I am.”
This time the room was silent.
“You have to bear silence in the 21st century,” Eileen Myles said during her reading of “How to Write an Avant Garde Poem” from her newest book The Importance of Being Iceland.
After reading Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” I always think about how he compares death and silence, only the thought didn’t last long because with every jerk of the knee, foot swing, and hand gesture, Eileen Myles brought my focus back to movement, the body living. She spoke of the importance of reading with friends, but I don’t think she was only referring to Glück in the front row, although she did nod in his direction. She moved beyond the physical, in a similar way to Glück, also calling to O’Hara (he “sounded queer”), Andy Warhol (who “sounded dumb, and that was good”) and John Cage (the importance of “making a map for your piece”).
The New York City outside as well as the city of Myles’ work seemed like more than just an elaborate grid of klaxons and iridescent lounges – it was a community and it felt alive. The city, pulsating and transparent, needed to be touched.
Both poets made it seem like death might be just another change and that love is the concern here, but that both need to be written about. Together and at all times, if you can swing it.
It shocked me when death came through Myles’ poem. The young couple just out for a drive, then
the wood came off the truck. The coma. Then gone. And just as it came it left, quickly, but kept me in my seat feeling, but the city requires that you just keep going. She moved through her work and on to other subjects: grease, poetry, women, haircuts.
Life is in the stories we tell. We are made of narrative, or at least we live them every day. Our voices, accents, the flip of our hair, nudge of our glasses. We’re speaking and trying to tell each other something.
Before one poem Myles said, “You don’t need to know anything. I didn’t even need to say that, in fact.”
[This event took place on Thursday, May 14, 2009.]
On a warm wet evening, John Ashbery once again embraced his poetic roots and generously read in the sanctuary of St. Marks as part of a triathlon of events held to raise some very much-needed cash for the Poetry Project. (Reader, are you a member? If not, stop reading and immediately click “Become a Member Now.”)
After thanking Charles North for “the super introduction every word of which is true,” Mr. Ashbery read first from A Worldly Country, before sharing yet more of the apparently ceaseless flow of new work, which is about to be bottled again, this time into a volume called Planosphere.
Of Planosphere more later, but of The Worldly Country as presented on Thursday we heard primarily from that side of Ashbery that produces works that read most like “poems.” The title piece, which Ashbery said “rhymes sort of, except for one line that I was very surprised to find doesn’t” seemed to be a re-working of Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” filled as it is with clocks and squares and china closets. In this version, however, “Time” has become “time,” and the “drift of appalling snow” has been transliterated to a “great ungluing.” As a real live “poem,” it searches, of course, for its “ending,” and as an Ashbery poem, it does so with a sort of anti-ponderous ponderousness: “And just as waves are anchored to the bottom of the sea/we must reach the shallows before God cuts us free.”
He then read “Hungry Again,” in which God makes an appearance once more, something that kept happening during the evening. This was followed by the funny, tender “Phantoum,” one line of which — “The purple emu laid another egg” — was inspired by a book of mistranslations from the French (“le peuple ému répondi” having been hilariously waylaid from its original meaning of “the aroused people responded”). In this seemingly autobiographical poem containing squawking auks and dissolving albatrosses, grape children try to “cope in a mushroom world,” until one “excused himself. Europe was calling.”
“It’s really very American in spite of the whole time spent in Paris thing,” Eileen Myles said to me after the reading. “Very Americana even,” I said, thinking not only of the poem “Antiques Roadshow,” which began with the line “There is a tremendous interest in dog-related items” (or was this just a comment?), but also of the overall “delightfully-demented-America” quality of the Ashberean language universe. “Very iPhone,” Eileen added.
This comment still has me pondering as I try to resurrect the rest of the evening in my mind. As Ashbery read extensively from Planosphere in that characteristic manner that I’ve always thought of as an equalizing “evenness,” one poem began to merge with the next and the titles took on the quality of charming, but unnecessary pauses. After a while the sensation was of floating in a vast ocean of language flotsam and cultural debris jetsam, with, on this particular occasion, a splash of God, or maybe it’s the God-esque, added now and then. In the end, the experience (mistranslated through my own erratic and fragmenting listening capabilities) might be rendered something as follows:
not having access to air conditioning
so peaceful on my palate
journey, trains, 1861
analgesics & potagers
rabbits in their plankton dispensary
Poetry dissolves in moisture and reads us to ourselves
love me anyway, he said
Spring being a mindless business where strangers come home to breathe
I dreamt of married couples having sex
a rut made by the first wheel
wandering through centuries
“always it was available to itself”
They were living in America ___________
[select one: deliriously, fictitiously, pandemically,
as tissue paper to a comb]
woe betide us
rubber cement growing tacky
One was encouraged into intimacy
the day we took our gum out
A man comes to the end of a drive
What about the cheese?
Thank you John Ashbery, pomposity-smasher, lyric lie detector, great impish dignitary. Live long and prosper!
Reading Report: My Vocabulary Did This To Me: Panel & Reading for The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer
[This event took place on Friday, May 15th, 2009.]
Last Friday night, the Poetry Project celebrated the release of Jack Spicer’s collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me. The room was packed (well both rooms, but I’ll get back to that) and, though Mercury was in retrograde, disrupting communication all over New York City, the Martian signal at St. Mark’s was coming in crystal clear. In addition to celebrating the release of the new collected poems, participants and audience members alike paid tribute to the memory of the recently passed Robin Blaser, who, besides being a terrific poet in his own right, edited the first widely distributed selection of Spicer’s work, The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, which introduced thousands of readers to Spicer’s poetry and revolutionary poetics.
The night got off to a crowded start. To say it was standing room only for the panel in the Parish hall would be a gross understatement, as a steady stream of over 125 people poured into the room, while the staff and interns scurried to make space for all of the warm bodies. Kari (my spouse) and I sold books at the card table in the back. The “breathing room only” crowd was treated to short statements about Spicer’s poems by a panel that included George Stanley, Samuel Delany, Dodie Bellamy, and Jennifer Moxley, and was moderated by Kevin Killian. There was also some good gossip about the publication history of the book, but I’ll leave that nugget for those who were there.
Stanley mused on Spicer’s investigation of the difference between “good” and “power,” saying that Spicer often saw power masking itself as good, manifest in poets such as Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. Bellamy read a piece on Spicer’s preoccupation with pulp fiction, particularly detective novels. Delany recalled his first encounter with Spicer, which was as a young teen, when he read the famous “San Francisco Scene” issue of the Evergreen Review. He compared the poem “The Dancing Ape” to the “Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me” by Delmore Schwartz, a comparison I’m not sure people quite bought. Surprisingly, Delany was also the first (and only) participant to raise the specter of East Coast v. West Coast poetry, saying West Coast poetry is more interested in objects, while East Coast poetry focuses on the poet’s experience. I always thought it had to do with the difference between the poem and the serial—the little and the big P. I also thought those distinctions were meaningless in the age of total mobility and internet connectivity. Whatever, the guy wrote Dahlgren—I’m not going to argue (although Douglas Rothschild looked ready to—he even left his sleeves at home).
Moxley presented a three-part micro essay, tracing her ambivalent (correct me if I’m wrong) appreciation of Spicer’s poetry. She began by discussing how she felt Robert Duncan has been underappreciated, while Spicer’s stock has continued to climb. She told a story about how a younger “established” poet had told her that Spicer was more important because people want “shit” not “alas,” then explained how that interpretation was based on a misreading of the letters in After Lorca. In her second and third parts she examined, what she reads as, Spicer’s foregrounding of the poet over the poem—that the act of correctly being a poet (read: following the rules) was more important than the poems themselves—and how she developed a renewed appreciation of his work while she prepared for the panel.
After a short break, we reconvened in the sanctuary for the reading. Jim Behrle stopped by the transported book table, sculpting the tomes into a proper display and “accidentally” leaving an anthology of lesbian vampire erotica (Daughters of Darkness) in Kari’s bag. Then the reading began before a sizable audience, proving, as if there are any doubters, that New York poets don’t only remember Spicer for his cameo in Frank O’Hara’s poem “At the Place.” Harris Schiff led off the reading with a multi-voiced rendition of the “Imaginary Elegies” parts I-IV. Dodie Bellamy and Douglas A. Martin read excerpts from The Book of the Death of Arthur and “A Fake Novel about the Life of Arthur Rimbaud” respectively. During Lewis Warsh’s reading of “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy,” I was reminded what a pleasure it is to hear him read. He always sounds like he’s telling you the most exciting news in the world, but just because it’s exciting doesn’t mean that he has to rush the delivery.
Rod Smith read a grab bag of poems, including a selection from “Homage to Creeley.” Rod’s choice of poems, two of which took digs at Ginsberg and Ferlingetti, echoed George Stanley’s earlier comments on masks of goodness. Rod is a poet, who in his own work, takes some of Spicer’s poetics and puts them to good use, if only to brutalize and twist (lovingly!) into his own shapes. After Rod, Peter Gizzi gave some thanks and read some poems (including “Poem without a Single Bird in It”).
Just before the mid-way break, Kevin Killian conducted a wonderful interview with Deborah Remington, a former student of Spicer’s and one of the founders of the 6 Gallery(!). She talked about how, as her communications teacher (how fitting, right?), Spicer made the class perform exercises, during which they examined the relationship between the constitutive parts of language and their impact on communication. For instance, she told the audience that Spicer had a policy that his students would not receive their final grade unless they were able to get a “letter to the editor” published in a newspaper. Before Deborah went on, I saw Stacy Szymaszek writing a note, saying that Deborah had to go on soon because she had a surprise party to return to. I think everyone was glad she stuck around to talk.
Kevin Killian began the second half by giving his respects to Robin Blaser. Like I wrote earlier, Blaser was in the thoughts of all, but reverence doesn’t always mean somber, and in this case, it allowed everyone to simultaneously celebrate both the book and Blaser’s life.
Basil King went “off program” and read the poem “Narcissus,” dedicated to him, from Spicer’s first dictated book, After Lorca. Planned move?
Julian T. Brolaski gave one of my favorite readings, presenting work from a number of places, including Admonitions and Billy the Kid. One of the questions I pondered throughout the reading was how individual voices interact with Spicer’s poems. Spicer’s use of deadpan, irony, and rhetorical shiftiness, can make it difficult to read his poems out loud (especially aided by mechanical amplification), without flattening them somewhat. Julian did a great job of clearly articulating the poems as they exist on the page—that is, taking the individual out a bit and letting the poems into the air on their own terms.
Everyone was really fantastic, and with every reader, the audience got the privilege of experiencing Spicer’s work in different tunings. Karen Weiser gave an excellent reading from A Red Wheelbarrow, making me believe that “love ate the red wheelbarrow,” then passed the poetry bat to George Stanley, who like an experienced baseball player, adjusted to the room’s pitch, before knocking sections from Language out of St. Mark’s, clear across the East River. His pacing and tone was just incredible, allowing each word to ring out of the feedback just long enough that it didn’t get muddied by the rest of the line. Stanley’s new book, Vancouver is excellent, by the way.
The last three readers provided a great cap to the night. After Anselm Berrigan read from A Book of Music, CA Conrad gave an expressive reading of “The Unvert Manifesto,” which, whether a reflection of Spicer’s personal philosophy or not, is a complicated, and devastatingly witty psychosexual treatise (Mertz!). Samuel Delany ended with two of Spicer’s letters from After Lorca. It felt fitting to turn the transmission off at the point where it really began in Spicer’s work, with the letters from one dead poet to another, concerned with the life of language, which outlined the course Spicer would follow throughout the rest of his work.
After the reading, participants lingered and chatted, taking pictures and planning the night’s next move, while the staff, interns, and volunteers, “rearranged the furniture” in the sanctuary (no joke), though according to the church’s floor plan, instead of Martian communications.
Note – Wilson read with Rob Halpern on Wednesday, March 11, 2009. Go here to read Stacy Szymaszek’s introductions for Peter and Rob.
Many years ago—before the Internet, when I gleaned almost everything I knew about contemporary ideas (outside Montreal) either in conversation or theory I read piecemeal in bookshops—a friend of mine described Hakim Bey as a Persian dissident, a total unknown, who composed anarcho-sufi communiqués from obscurity in NYC. I immediately pictured a slightly more peaceable Travis Bickle, driving taxi and chalking tracts on bridges and tunnels across the city. And well, the image stuck. So much so that when I went to see him read for the first time in person this past Wednesday at the Poetry Project and spied a jovial, Anglo-Saxon looking old man in a lumberjack shirt-coat and a Rasputin beard, it proved very difficult for me to believe that this was the infamous author of TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). Then it was announced that there would be no reading of Hakim Bey’s recent volume, Black Fez Manifesto (2008). Instead, Peter Lamborn Wilson would present his freshly penciled eclogues from the Hudson Valley. The effect was the rather ticklish evening full of suspense. Continually caught off guard—despite myself—by Wilson’s innuendo-ridden erudition, his relentless, ever probing easy touch with occult references and ten syllable words, I tittered and tee-heed: who is this guy?
What was my impression of these new poems? Well, I would call them—entertaining. And not in any pejorative sense. Peter Lamborn Wilson proved again how effective it can be to just get a few basic things right—like scoring the music of the poem on the page (often counter to one’s habitual lilt), or trusting precise thought to enlivened language rather than the other way around. Certainly, this (and much more) was on display in Wilson’s first poem, Opium Dens I Have Known; as close to an “instant hit” as I’ve heard in a long time. I also liked how this all-too-familiar tour of the last “big smoke” dens of Asia and the Middle East, worked as the confessions of a 19th century Orientalism junkie, perhaps even something of a self drug test. Touching down in real places as much as well-worn clichés—labyrinthine ‘old towns’, the open-sewer alleys under wash-hanging skies in port slums and whoring districts—Wilson spared no effort in surveying every familiar item, every broken down antique accoutrement, personality or fashion you might find in these sordid retreats, or in the available literature. This is the drug, he seemed to say: clotted sap, sure, but also, just as importantly, the second flowering of a once grand fantasy’s phrases and facts. Likewise, with every description, as Wilson’s exacting ethnographic details fishtailed into immobilizing ambiance, stopped, then started up again, you felt the high/low of it: words are soma, soma—words.
Quite different from Opium Dens I Have Known, every other poem that Wilson read Wednesday night was part of his recent bucolic study of the Hudson Valley, including various months from The Shepheardes Calendar, several eclogues, an interlude of spring “mud sonnets” and finally a sprawling “The Anglo-Irish Big House Eclogue”, which drew a lot from the spirit of Celtic lore. But again, without these poems available for me to re-read closely, I must reiterate my first impression. They seemed very lively, cipher-packed and funny. One image that I noticed recurring again and again was that of a midden or compost, which I thought suited perfectly Wilson’s scholastic-like tendency of always mining, always sifting through classical and arcane references without much care for order. And I thought it interesting too as a central, simultaneously political and sexual conceit, something that Virgil always insisted on for his eclogues. For instance, what better image of Class War in the Hudson Valley, than a refuse pile of quarried stones, or raked leaves? What better metaphor of the Culture Wars than organic food in a plastic composter, or the all-mixed-up brain fallout of the “information bomb”? Then, there’s the combustible heat of fresh compost, a hot bed for worms and insects. Along these lines, I remember Wilson specifically making an example of England’s white cliffs of Dover, a side-exposed midden of glacially ancient mollusk shells, whose vast legacy of slimy, salty sex ostensibly prompted Darwin to coin the less famous but more accurate adage—“survival of the happiest”.
Look out for these poems in the future, under any moniker.
Two old friends came together to give very different presentations on February 20th, 2008 at the church.
Alison Knowles gave us “North Water Song,” a mesmerizing duet for voice and dancer, to the accompaniment of bell-like chords on electric guitar and occasional recorded tones played on the shakuhachi, more landscape elements than music. Landscape was to be very much an element of the performance, though at the beginning the only object in the performance space was a low platform composed of a wide plank resting on three cinder blocks.
The piece flowed unbroken through three parts. In the first, Alison named a series of object and I ching castings, the dancer, a younger woman, intoning various terms suggestive of ecological phenomena. It was rather like a composer establishing the tonal elements at the beginning of a composition, while exposing the chance operations involved in its making.
The second and longest part began with the two women unrolling a wall-length narrow scroll of white paper, attaching it loosely to the wall. The dancer then stripped down to flesh-colored leotard and tights, simulating nakedness. Alison wrapped her, as if with swaddling, in another long scroll of white paper, and as the dancer moved it was as if she were emerging from a chrysalis, or a veil, parts of her body emerging provocatively into view, then retreating again, the paper a cloud-form, or more, a play on the variations of clouds or whiteness. Alison wrapped her again, more tightly, as if packaging a statue. Then, as Alison intoned images of flowing water, the dancer, unwrapped again, progressed across the room, squeezing between wall and paper, the lower half of her body protruding, and shone a green light through the paper, creating something like the eddies of water and moonlight on a classic scroll. She seemed to become water itself. The text opened out into a Ponge-like environmental catalogue, Alison wrapping her arm in heavily-textured paper, then moving across the space with a bag of the same paper filled with beans, producing a sound like a rain stick. She sprayed water on the long scroll, as if drawing a horizon line, then tore the paper along it.
The third part began with Alison leading the dancer to the platform. She stood motionless as Alison put loose paper sleeves on her, then raised her arms—the dancer totally passive, like an infinitely compliant, infinitely flexible manikin. Alison put paper leggings on her, adjusting their fit around the groin, then paper slippers on her feet, then pulled a paper hood over her head. And the perversity that had been a disturbing substrate from the start emerged full-blown, but ambiguous, so that there was no safe place for the viewer. The revealing of the flesh-colored leotard and tights at the beginning had been more shocking than actual nudity—the sense of innocence and freedom missing, the simulacrum of nudity insisting on the simplest physicality, and demanding our awareness of our voyeuristic impulse. And the dancer, at the end, had become something like Hans Bellmer’s erotic doll, on which to act out sadistic rituals. It became, as well, impossible not to think about the dancer’s identity outside the performance—Alison’s daughter. The hood at once reminded one of the Spanish Inquisition and Abu Ghraib. Alison led, or escorted, her through the crowd and out, blind, helpless, and scraping her feet along the ground as if manacled.
Alison Knowles is a pioneer of Fluxus, and it continues to be a major influence on her work, as here. Jerome Rothenberg was involved with Fluxus in its early days. He began his reading with a set of instructions for an event in the Fluxus manner from that time, and there were Fluxus-like instructions embedded in the rest of his reading, from his recent Triptych (ND, 2007), which brings together three books, Poland / 1931 (1974), Khurbn ( 1989) and The Burning Babe (2006), but the work couldn’t have been more different. Knowles’ work comes out of oriental meditative traditions, tends to abstractions, and stresses silence at least as much as words. While her environmental and political concerns are clear, they seem divorced from the grit of human life, and radically aestheticized, though no less moving for being so. The connection to the largely absent human world is elusive, expressed as symbol. Rothenberg’s work, often boisterously comic but always at base deadly serious, is an eruption of words profoundly embedded in an occidental, rabbinic tradition of moral inquiry, grounded in the social and individual life as lived. One is overwhelmed by the presence of the street and the multitude of bodies and stories. Symbolism is largely eschewed, except in the magisterial “The Burning Babe,” in which one of the West’s master symbols is deconstructed.
Rothenberg tells us in the introduction to Khurbn that it was written partially “in answer to the proposition …that poetry cannot or should not be written after Auschwitz,” but I think that applies equally to all three books. Poland / 1931, he told us was an attempt, in the manner of ethnopoetics, “to create an ancestral poetry of my own in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madmen.” He had previously attempted the same for Plains Indians and other groups equally threatened with physical and cultural annihilation. The impulse was somewhat the same—in each case it was a mission to rescue dead and dying cultures from the grip of sentimentalization and appropriation into the forms of the hegemonic culture. So, an exuberant, sometimes bawdy communal life is resurrected as it lived within one Jew born in 1931, reconstructed out of voluminous scraps of hearsay as if it continued unbroken.
A decade later, having visited what was left of his family’s Polish life, in their village and in the camp where almost all of those who stayed behind perished, it’s another version of that world being resurrected. He can no longer turn away from the horror and despair epitomized, for instance, by his family’s one “survivor,” an uncle who had gone to the woods with a group of Jewish partisans and who, when he heard that his wife and children were murdered at Treblinka, “drank himself blind in a deserted cellar & blew his brains out.” The poem “Nokh Aushvitz (After Auschwitz)” is a catalogue of “pure ugliness,” culminating with
the scarlet remnants of the children’s flesh
their eyes like frozen baby scallops
so succulent that the blond Ukrainian guard
sulking beneath his parasol leaps up
and sucks them inward past his iron teeth
and down his gullet, shitting
globules of fat & shit
that trickle down the pit in which the victim—
the girl without a tongue—stares up
& reads her final heartbreak
Khurbn attempts to give that dead girl her voice again, as Poland / 1931 had tried to give a voice to the pre-Auschwitz past.
The Burning Babe takes its name, and draws much of its imagery, from the title of a poem by the English Catholic Martyr Robert Southwell, but reads it through the lens of Blake’s “The Mental Traveller,” which supplies its epigraph:
But when they find the frowning babe
Terror strikes thro the region wide
They cry the Babe the Babe is born
And flee away on Every side.
In Rothenberg’s reading, the Babe as symbol of Christ is repeatedly contrasted to “the real babe,” which suffers at the hand of its symbolic savior. The idea never is allowed to excuse the actual. If anything, the endless cruelties performed in its name are seen as consequences of that symbolic distancing.
little eyes gone white
with fingers squeezed around
a doll whose eyes
are also white
& filled with
like a babe’s
So, two very different, profoundly moral artists. It strikes me as a shame that so many of The Poetry Project’s regular audience weren’t there. It was a full house, but the median age must have been about 50. This is hardly surprising: I’ve noticed a tendency for audiences to approximate an age or group cohort, which would seem to elevate the social above whatever might be learned. These were two masters at the top of their form. One would think that younger poets especially would have flocked to see and hear them.