On March 17, 2014, Julia Bloch hosted a conversation about the relevance of the Beats in contemporary poetry, with Frank Sherlock, Michelle Taransky, Maria Raha, Chris McCreary, and Thomas Devaney. The session was webcast live, and was tweeted with the #PhillyBEATS hashtag. The video recording is available here, and the audio recording of the session is available here.
On January 31, 2014, Frank Sherlock's appointment as Philadelphia's second Poet Laureate was announced by Mayor Michael Nutter at a ceremony at City Hall. The laureate was selected by the Mayor's Poet Laureate Governing Board. “I am honored and excited to appoint Frank Sherlock as Philadelphia’s second Poet Laureate,” said Mayor Nutter. “Frank is a native Philadelphian and a 2013 Pew Fellow in the Arts for Literature. He is one of Philadelphia’s most talented homegrown artists. I am confident that Frank will represent Philadelphia well during his term as Poet Laureate.” “How lucky I am to be a poet in my favorite city in the world? This city raised me, beat the hell out of me a few times, and still reveals the magic of Philadelphia Brotherly Love,” said Sherlock.
Forty years ago today, a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet waged war on the democratically elected government of Chile. It was the South American September 11th. That day began a period of cruel repression, characterized by extreme violence and human rights abuses. Thousands of people were tortured, murdered and disappeared. The Chilean people commemorate this day with remembrance, mourning and renewed commitment. We observe this date in solidarity from within the borders of the Empire where the coup began. Our collaborative composition examines the damage beyond the event itself, crossing continents and spanning years. You may hear resonances of folk singer Victor Jara, fundraiser/activist Ronni Moffitt, poet Pablo Neruda and CIA agent Michael Townley. Of course, there are also the voices inside the house.
The house is the site of an artist salon hosted by novelist Mariana Callejas, as recounted in Roberto Bolano's novel By Night in Chile. One of the few gathering places for artists after the coup, many artists attended — though almost no one would admit that they were there.
It’s 1995. January 1. Ron Silliman, who had carefully planned this daily yearlong writing project, begins to write the first of what will be fifty-two sections of a series going under the title “You.” He worries about the war in Chechnya, and writes a sentence on that, and about acid rain, and that gets a sentence. He remembers his dreams. He overhears intellectual coffeeshop talk. It’s cold outside.
This would be the twenty-fifth book of The Alphabet; in the Alabama edition of that major assemblage, twenty-five years in the making, “You” begins on page 903, a long way in. Fifty-two sections, one for every week of 1995, each consisting of seven daily prose paragraphs, typically one, two, or three sentences each day. You write what you see, what you overhear, what news local (floods) or world (wars) occurs to you or impresses you, what you remember, what you know or think you know during these days. In one “You” is the diary in New Sentences of a year.
Linh Dinh, Julia Bloch, and Frank Sherlock joined Al to talk about a poem published in Norman Fischer’s book Turn Left in Order to Turn Right (O Books, 1989). The poem is “I’d Like to See It” (text; audio). When Fischer was interviewed by Charles Bernstein for a Close Listening program in 2006, he read six poems from that 1989 book, including our poem. These six readings, and a great many more, are available on Fischer’s PennSound author page. His own website also includes other recordings of poetry, and also talks.
Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and is the founder of and a teacher for the Everyday Zen Foundation, a network of communities and projects. He began publishing poetry in the late 1970s and in those early years especially his writing was associated with that of the Bay Area Language Poets.
Fischer wrote the following prefatory statement to Turn Left in Order to Go Right: “Occasionally when people ask me about Zen practice I say it’s not the usual kind of activity in that you can’t really try to do it. If you try to move toward it it always seems to be somewhere else. The harder you try the worse it gets. But you can’t not make any effort either; in fact you have to make a mighty effort, but in another direction. It’s a little like turning left in order to go right.”
This sense of quasi-nonintentional misdirection, our Talkers felt, is a key to understanding the way Fischer in “I’d Like to See It” deploys the refrain “I’d like to see it that way.” Does it demand or expect the seer to see a certain way? Does it express desire? And how variously? Does it imply a program for a better future? Ah, but — as Linh Dinh points out — it seeks an end to war but wonders if wanting war to end would ever end it: “[W]ould my wanting / To end it ever end if nothing ever ended / I’d like to see it that way.” Julia Bloch observes that the refrain both “swerves away from the intention” going on in any line preceding it “and also modifies it.” At one point, grappling with the poem’s refrain, Al puts it this way: “What I have now is not the way I’d like to see it. Or it could mean: the way I’m seeing it is the way I’d like the world to be, which happens to be the way it is because I observed it. One way or other, there is a difference between the way the world is and the way the world is if he is able to see it the way he’d like ”
Frank Sherlock reminds us that Zen practice and jazz, cognate fields and modes of (non)thought especially in the US, produce a series of variations that focus our attention on modes of thought rather than on the subject matter of the poem (war, air pressure, one’s “daily objects,” a chimney). Frank reminds us of Fischer’s “To be without content, but full of ” where light equals (in this case) compositional process, the proceedings of a thought variously through unanticipated contexts.
Back in 2001 the people of the Kelly Writers House wanted to bring Cid Corman — long by then a resident of Kyoto, Japan — to Philadelphia to be with us, give a reading, meet some of his readers. But one thing or another — cost, Cid’s health — made this impossible. So we set up a combination of a phone link to Cid in Kyoto and a live audiocast feed; in this way, the fifty of us in the Arts Café of the Writers House and another 75 or so listening on their computers around the world were able to enjoy a reading by Cid, ask him questions, and make at least that limited sort of contact with the founder of Origin, crusty prolific exile, author of tens of thousands of poems. The November 2001 event was moderated by PoemTalk’s producer and host, Al Filreis, along with Frank Sherlock,Fran Ryan, and Tom Devaney.
Fast forward. Cid Corman died in 2004. Bob Arnold, Philip Rowland, Jack Kimball, Joe Massey and others have worked hard to keep Cid’s poems within the view of readers — especially Bob Arnold whose Longhouse Press published The Next One Thousand Years, the Selected Poems of Cid Corman. And then, as part of the PoemTalk series, we staged a mini-reunion of the November 2001 Cormanite moderators, Fran, Tom, Frank and Al, to talk about one of our favorite poems, “Enuresis.”
It means bed-wetting. The poem puts forward this audacious claim to understanding: I know the terror you’ve experienced in the midst of war because as a child I held my urine close to me for fear of my parents’ terrifying enmity. The claim is made with such poetic consciousness (at the level of word choice and meter - and in the spoken performance) that one hardly doubts the power of the homefront psychic terror being remembered.