A wonderful moment occurs toward the close of How I Became a Painter, Miles Champion’s recently published book of conversations with the painter Trevor Winkfield, in which Winkfield switches roles on his erstwhile interviewer to ask candidly, “Why do you like my paintings?” For anyone reviewing Champion’s third poetry collection, How to Laugh, this excerpt from his response is hard to resist implementing as preface:
I started reading Citizen on a train from Grand Central Station to New Haven last Friday. I’d had a meeting in the city in the morning. Afterwards I met my friend Paul for lunch. I caught the 1:34 train. It was raining. On the way into the city, I finished reading C, a novel by Tom McCarthy. I had figured this would happen, so I brought your book for the ride home.
Aaron Shurin (then just in from the Bay Area), John Tranter (visiting from Australia), and Charles Bernstein (coming in from New York) joined Al Filreis for this episode of PoemTalk to discuss a poem by Ray DiPalma, “It makes of nonsense.” The poem was written in 1976, and first performed, we think, in 1977. Our text of the poem comes from the poet, and is reproduced below. Our PennSound recording of the poem was segmented from a longer tape of a reading DiPalma gave, along with Michael Lally and Bruce Andrews (quite a threesome in those years), at the Ear Inn in New York City on November 10, 1977; the tape-recording itself was made by the aforementioned Charles Bernstein, one of this episode’s interlocutors.
As those of you who read my first commentary know, I have sought out contemporary poets in order to discover how they might frame their own relationship to the epic form. The responses coming in have been fantastic. (For those of you who read commentary number one, I also cleaned my coffee maker with vinegar. The results? Similarly fantastic.)
The question (stripped of framing apparatus) that I posed to a wide variety of writers was this: “Which epics do you consider part of your own lineage (as a poet, performer, teacher, scholar, reader . . .) and why?” I purposely defined neither “epic” nor “lineage.” I wanted to see in what ways these terms were generative to contemporary poets, and what definitions were alive for them.
Given the epic’s role in nation making, through the retelling of nationalist history, I found Aaron Shurin’s response exciting, especially its own retelling of a period in poetic history.
About 1982 Don Allen approached me to work with him as an editorial assistant for Grey Fox Press and Four Seasons Foundation. Had I met him before? I can’t remember, but probably so. My work-study job from New College was — get this! — to be Robert Duncan’s assistant (I had already known Robert well), but after two years or so that money ran out, and Don asked me to work for him. I wound up learning how to proof and copyedit, did some layout, some typing, and had the singular job of going through all of his correspondence in preparation of his papers going to San Diego. I was a pig in — well, gold: O’Hara, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Frechtman translating Genet, you know the list. They all passed through my hands before they settled down into the archives.