Edwin Torres & Will Alexander

[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.”

more lines:

“God a philosophical Torment”

“macropositional scalding”

“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.”

More lines:

“ambit of an iris transcribing its folios in trance”

“a brackish melancholia”

“narcotic iridescence”

“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]

“abstract carking”

“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.

2 Responses to Edwin Torres & Will Alexander

  1. Steven Fama says:

    Nice report, and I’m particularly happy to read about Will A.

    Forgive me, but I’m bugged by the paragraph here asserting that Alexander’s poetry is “very interesting almost as artifact,” and stating that he writes as if certain particular kinds of poetry were never written. First, why is it assumed that every poet’s writing must somehow take in all that’s been written before and then do something different, to reference or acknowledge, explicitly or implicitly, all that’s been done before?

    Second, there are many pathways to the garden. Objectivism et al. aren’t the only ways. The path laid out by surrealist writers — Peret to Cesaire to any number of others, including Americans (cf. Lamantia) is for some, including Alexander, a kind of signpost, altered of course by each poet’s particular passion and senses. The surrealist way can be wholly sufficient in itself, and it has evolved it continues to result in marvels of poetry. On this last point, see Andrew Joron’s short but almost encyclopedic Neo-Surrealism, or The Sun at Night (2004) [available via Small Press Distribution].

  2. Nada Gordon says:

    Steven, yes, I agree with you. We are not at the “endpoint” of some kind of “historical progression” of poetry. Still, Will’s work, and the surrealist mode in general, strikes me as somehow quaint. I don’t mean by that that it is “over”, or indeed, by that characterization, anything pejorative; it’s simply a subjective observation.

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