A PoemTalk retrospective (PoemTalk #100)

PoemTalkers each respond to two episodes

From left to right: William J. Harris, Tracie Morris, erica kaufman, Steve McLaughlin, Herman Beavers, Maria Damon, and Charles Bernstein.


To celebrate the one hundredth episode of PoemTalk — the series began in 2007 and is ongoing — producer and host Al Filreis convened seven poet-critics who had participated in previous episodes: Herman Beavers, Maria Damon, William J. Harris, erica kaufman, Tracie Morris, Steve McLaughlin, and Charles Bernstein. These seven were asked to listen again to the series and choose two episodes that in particular stimulated new thinking or the desire to revise, restate, reaffirm, assess, and/or commend.

Poet in profile

The Year of the Ram is the year to celebrate the Black Sheep. Jenny Zhang is the New Girl fed up with the Old World crap sheet.

Thirteen poems by Bernadette Mayer

These poems come from Bernadette Mayer’s long-unpublished early book, The Old Style Is Finding out Something about a Whole New Set of Possibilities, which was written mostly from 1966 to 1970, when Mayer was between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five. Unlike the majority of the poems in the book, they were never published in any form until their appearance in Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer (Station Hill Press, 2015), which we coedited. When Mayer began The Old Style, she was a student at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, taking poetry classes from Bill Berkson.

'Awareness inside language'

On George Quasha's preverbs

Note: After reading several of George Quasha’s collections of “preverb” poems with great interest, I was intrigued by his development of this new poetic mode, the way it shaped the organization of his work over a substantial period of time and the persistent metapoetic (even metalinguistic) thrust of the poetry. George kindly consented to engage in an exchange, and we limited the discussion to four of his preverb books. The interview took place via email from January 8 to February 23, 2016.

'We want to live on it'

Sarah Campbell’s poems are funny, but so what? There’s no shortage of funny contemporary American poems. In fact, one could argue that a particular strain of humor has been the default setting for much American poetry, be it mainstream or avant-garde, since the poets of the New York School, tutored on Auden, shook off some of the high seriousness of Modernism mid-century. True wit is something else again and, while often funny, is not automatically so. If irony is still, despite counter-efforts, the spirit of the age, poetry of wit stands in an ironic relationship to it.

No form in mind

Paul Auster in conversation with George and Mary Oppen

Left: Paul Auster at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival. Photo by David Shankbone. Right: George and Mary Oppen in the 1970s, photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Linda Oppen.

Note: When Paul Auster in 1980 asked to interview his friend George Oppen, the poet agreed, but with a warning. “What worries me,” wrote Oppen, “is the question of whether or not I can say anything that I have not already said — And my own condition at this moment which is something alas, very like senility — I am not being very brilliant these days, and I have not written anything since Primitive.” Nevertheless, Auster flew to San Francisco in February 1981 and spent several days at the Oppens’ house on Polk Street recording George and Mary around their kitchen table.

Moving image, moving text, never past, look in mirror (repeat)

Lisa Robertson’s epic, nothing-quite-like-it Cinema of the Present reads and screens like its title. I daresay it is a textual film. On paper. But moving. You often hear about “poetic” or “text-films” but on film. But what about the opposite? Films on paper. After you’re done reading it you will feel like you’ve just watched a film. The images will come back to haunt and unhaunt you over and over. You’ll remember and then you’ll remember you just read a book, not a film.

Finnish vispo: Kokoomateos

Why Finland? Why visual poetry? Why Kokoomateos?

There’s a stir going on, a textual free-for-all, a visible shift in how language is being handled in response to the machines in our lives. This is not unusual. We have seen it before: the way in which technology affects the environment that created it. In Finland, visual poetry, in some way, sprang up almost fully formed. There are few antecedents that point to its appearance, yet here it is.

Translating difficulty

Ouyang Jianghe’s poetry presents to any translator the difficult decision of whether or not to pursue his work as a language artifact to be translated as close to literally as possible, or whether to amplify its implicit beliefs, and its abstractions — through a historical lens, or otherwise. But since he is said by translator Austin Woerner to be known as the “most hermetic of the Chinese hermetic poets,” we can expect a pronounced “cryptic language” that doesn’t easily yield access to, as Woerner describes it, “the poem’s mystery.”[2] In such a case, translating in a straightforward manner may be an unproductive task. So, in Woerner’s case, he decides to “show only enough [of the original] to tempt the imagination, inviting the reader to see in it what she wishes,” using the poem as “a tool for contemplation, a mandala or maze among whose many turnings the reader can pick her own path” (23).

[I]f there are strong ambiguities in the original poem, there’s no need to select only one possible sense and then translate that: instead, translate one ambiguity into another! Don’t try to solve the problem: translate it! — J. H. Prynne[1] 

Repetition and revulsion

So a call for effect: I ask ________. I ask ________. I ask ________. I ask ________. The repeat entreats, endures out a threshold in its and again and again and again. A really really really ask “but not only that,”[1] the performance of devotion: I won’t stop since the source of power, the entreatied, doesn’t want me to stop “but not only that,” the source is boundless and will only answer if it reckons me for kin. So again and again and again as “recursiveness, incantatory insistence … repeated ritual sip … aiming to undo the obstruction it reports.”[2] Again.