Review of Ahmad Almallah, Bitter English (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 87 pp.
He stumbles as he says pretty much anything to himself — always while successfully conveying such stumbling to us. He feels that he owes everything to one place but knows that that place is “not here” — not the here of the place where he writes, not even the new “here”-ness the poem makes. How can a poet occupying the space of a page, the classic “here” where even a lost poet can call home, be alienated even from that “here”? The typical poetic existential “here I am” becomes a matter, always, of forgetting and remembering both. (It’s significant that one of the muses here is the poet’s mother, she who suffers from memory loss.)
Review of Ahmad Almallah, Bitter English (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 87 pp.
Note: This review was given as an introduction to Almallah’s reading at the Kelly Writers House on October 15, 2019.
Sunday, July 14th, New York City: It’s been one week since the death of gifted multi-hyphenate writer, publisher, gallerist, mentor, and community-builder Steve Cannon, founder of the magazine and organization “A Gathering of the Tribes” in New York City. Although many of us are still in a state of shock at the loss, it is important that his recent passing is noted. This comment is a brief mention to mark this time. I’m sure more extensive commentaries by others will follow. Steve Cannon was a great writer. The roots of his work are as a proud New Orleanian. He often mentioned the city of his birth in his reflections on his life and cited his upbringing there in how he expansively considered life, culture, the spirit, art, and organizing disparate people and points of view. (One of his last publications was the book Black Jelly, with poetry by fellow New Orleans native Melanie Maria Goodreaux.
Tracie Morris has written the following to mark the passing of Steve Cannon:
Sunday, July 14th, New York City: It’s been one week since the death of gifted multi-hyphenate writer, publisher, gallerist, mentor, and community-builder Steve Cannon, founder of the magazine and organization “A Gathering of the Tribes” in New York City. Although many of us are still in a state of shock at the loss, it is important that his recent passing is noted. This comment is a brief mention to mark this time. I’m sure more extensive commentaries by others will follow.
Steve Cannon was a great writer. The roots of his work are as a proud New Orleanian. He often mentioned the city of his birth in his reflections on his life and cited his upbringing there in how he expansively considered life, culture, the spirit, art, and organizing disparate people and points of view. (One of his last publications was the book Black Jelly, with poetry by fellow New Orleans native Melanie Maria Goodreaux. Several months ago, he hosted a major event for the book at Langston Hughes’ Harlem home. An apt context.)
Steve very much made New York City his place. Earlier on in his relocation here he was a member of the culturally significant Black writers’ group, Society of Umbra. His impact on the influential Lower East Side/Loisaida/East Village art scene and its global influence from the 1960s to the present is incalculable.
In addition to being a renowned writer, publisher, and community organizer for authors, Steve was a friend of performance artists, musicians, and visual artists. Some legendary creative friends who predeceased him include Judith Molina, Miles Davis, Butch Morris, Ntozake Shange, and, if memory serves, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Appreciation of and respect for Steve by countless artists of all disciplines is a very long list, too long to begin to approach in this brief note. He was a draw. He was also an incredibly generous person with his time and care. Many of us are deeply indebted to Steve for his support, exceptional cultural memory, and deep connections throughout the larger art world. Even though he was known as more avant-garde in his personal approach to writing, he was extraordinarily well-versed and welcoming of all types of art and scholarship.
For many of us who grew up in the “downtown” New York City poetry scene in the early 1990s, Steve was a welcoming, fun, and brutally-hilariously incisive critic and supporter. His “throne,” in those early days of the revivified Nuyorican Poets Cafe, was the end of the bar where he could be heard to audibly and perceptively, well, heckle. “Read the got-damn poem!” was one of his most well-known critiques when the poet on stage was yammering through a warm-up to the text (present writer very much included). What Steve’s loving and bracing critiques, both toward the stage and in intimate conversations, helped to do was expertly mentor — and toughen up — many of the poets who embraced his company. I don’t think I realized how well he prepared so many of us for the writerly life through his witty comments yelled toward the stage. Those who had experienced that type of bracing humor that underlies a very precise suggestion on the poetry in the room were more than prepared for the critiques of, say, an MFA workshop.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Steve’s legacy, especially now in hindsight, is his ability to be a “neutral space” for many dedicated artists, including poetry cliques that naturally occur in communities by people of varying opinions. There were people who disagreed vehemently with each other or plain didn’t like each other, as people are wont to do, but everybody got along with Steve. He just refused to hold grudges or to hold on to bad feelings. He accepted that other people did, he listened but he wasn’t in a “camp,” he was the camp ground.
This included all the art disciplines that A Gathering of the Tribes represented on paper, digitally, and in live performance (including dance). He was a living “true north” for how to embody an open-minded, open-hearted practice and beingness.
Although it seems that Steve lived to a respectable age (84) before joining the ancestors, it feels to be a premature passing if you’d met him. He was consistently vibrant, vivacious, curious, and of sound mind and body (maybe just a bit frailer as he aged). He always was ready with a hearty laugh and intimate, smokey voice (unless he was loudly heckling) almost up to the moment of his death. He was a good friend and he loved connecting people. He was a fun organizer: “Introduce yourselves, introduce yourselves,” was another one of his known and beloved phrases when a few or a lot of people were in the room with him — and this was usually the case. He was extremely popular with people of all generations. (Folks loved to hang out with him and he was quite charming in his uniquely unaffected “Black boho” way.)
The fact that Steve was blind from 1989 until the end of his life might’ve been why newcomers, strangers, would introduce each other to each other at his request. After all, did Steve know who was in the room? Shoot, Steve knew who was in the room better than the sighted people in the room. What he did by suggesting that folks introduce themselves was to create a welcoming space everywhere he was. Rather than just take over the place, he’d encourage all of us to connect one to another, making ourselves at home.
Celebrations are being organized throughout the city for Steve (and beyond) as we mourn the tremendous loss to our communities. Steve was very committed to publishing voices of artists from around the world and to mentoring subsequent generations of artists. Although he spent much of his time “gathering” various tribes, Steve himself was a serious writer of extraordinary versatility and often heightened minimalism. His economy as well as his flourishes were not only on the page but in his articulation of what mattered and how he brought it across in his care for artists.
During a visit to the Kelly Writers House — on his way from Glasgow to Managua — Shetland poet Christie Williamson took some time to read his poem “Da Burn” and responded to a few of our questions about it and the Shetlandic language. Click on the screenshot below to watch the video. The text of the poem is also below.
Here is an excerpt from an seventy-minute interview/conversation with Samuel. R. Delany. Delany was a Kelly Writers House Fellow in 2016. The discussion took place on February 16 that year. Regina Salmons has done the work of transcription. A video recording of the entire conversation can be viewed here.
Al FILREIS (begins by quoting Delany’s novel Dhalgren)
“As I walked home, I thought about the hospital again” — this is described earlier in the “It was so easy to tell your story and not mention you were homosexual.” I assume he means to tell your story in the clinic. [Continues quoting Delany.] “It was so simple to write about yourself, and just not to say you were black. You could put together a whole book full of anecdotes about yourself without ever revealing you were dyslexic. And how many people whom I’d just met and who’d ask me ‘what do you do?,’ did I answer disingenuously, ‘Oh I type manuscripts for people.’”
In 2017 I moderated an interview/conversation with Lydia Davis. At one point I asked her to read “In the Train Station,” a prose poem or microstory I have admired and puzzled over. Then she and I discussed it. A video clip of that exchange is here, below. The transcription was done by Regina Salmons. The text of the piece can be read here. Here is a link to a video recording of an 18-minute discussion of this piece with Anna Strong Safford and erica kaufman (the video is inside the ModPo site; one must register to watch). And here is a 35-minute collaborative close reading (with 20 people) of the same piece which I hosted in San Francisco.
New ModPo video just posted — in which Anna Strong Safford and I talk with Yosuke Tanaka about a dark, wartime poem by Ayukawa Nobuo called “Man on a Bridge” (1942). Click the link (to view the video you must be logged into ModPo — registering is free and open to all):
Obsidian Blues, to quote Herman Beavers quoting Ralph Angel, is itself “a still life and a way to get home again.” The poems in this powerful collection often present still lives of stilled lives. The speaker can see “Apples. / The way the light / betrays them” in a poem,“Obsidian Blues 43,” about a guitarist whose stringy wail (“strings judding like a systolic ghost swaggering”) sings a song of variation that reqpeatedly requires renaming. One such tentative title is “Still Life with Guitar and Heartstrike”; another is “Landscape with Skull and Banjo.”
On September 9, 2017, at the Kelly Writers House, Herman Beavers read poems from his new book, Obsidian Blues. HERE is a link to the video recording of the event, and HERE is a link to the audio-only recording.
Editorial note: The following conversation has been adapted from an episode of PoemTalk recorded in 2016 at the Wexler Studio in the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. The episode features Al Filreis, Yolanda Wisher, Charles Bernstein, and Patricia Spears Jones discussing Akilah Oliver’s poem “is you is or is you ain’t” from Oliver’s collection the she said dialogues: flesh memory (Smoke Proof/Erudite Fangs, 1999).
Ross Gay, Josephine Park, and Herman Beavers joined Al Filreis to talk about Patrick Rosal’s “Instance of an Island.” The poem was collected in Rosal’s book Brooklyn Antediluvian (Persea, 2016). Our recording of Rosal performing the poem comes from a Wexler Studio reading done at the Kelly Writers House in March of 2016, just weeks before the book was published. This episode of PoemTalk, number 112 in our ongoing podcast series, is being made available in two versions — the usual audio, downloadable from this Jacket2 page, through iTunes, and on the Poetry Foundation site; and an uncut video recording (see below).
On April 12, 2016, Charles Bernstein gave a reading from his new-new book Pitch of Poetry at the Kelly Writers House. I gave the introduction. Earlier I published a version of that introduction here in my Jacket2 commentary series, titling it “Clumsy, erroneous, freakish, foreign.” Now, thanks to the video editing of Dylan Leahy of the PennSound staff, I am able to make available at video recording, below. And below that is a second video clip from the Pitch event — Bernstein's finale: a selection from the aphorisms that appear toward the end of the book.