In 1985, Eileen Myles was the new director of the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York. She asked me to curate a lecture series, the first such program at the church. I modelled the series at the Poetry Project on my earlier series New York Talk, giving it the amusing title, given the sometimes seeming resistance to poetics at the St. Marks at the time, St. Marks Talks. And talk it did.
Jackson Mac Low made available several sections of his Stein series on his EPC page. I sometimes introduce my students to this series by reading and discussing with them number 7, titled “Very Pleasant Soiling.” Mac Low’s notes, as usual, describe the process by which this (and other) pieces in the series were composed:
“A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore” was created by Jackson MacLow in memory of his friend Peter Moore, who in photographs documented the doings and performances of NYC Fluxus and other artists in the 1960s and early 70s. The text or, more properly, the score is filled entirely with words (960 of them) drawn from the letters in the name of “Peter Innisfree Moore”; words like smite, opinion, freer, re-import, Semite, fen, minister, and smote circle around one another in various hand-drawn shapes and sizes.
Richard Kostelanetz writes, “This visual-verbal text can then become a score for a live performance in which any number of readers are encouraged to read aloud whichever words they wish, at whatever tempo they wish, for indefinite durations; and Mac Low's instructions for this particular piece suggest that the individual letters can be translated into certain musical notes (and, thus, that the same text can be interpreted as a musical score).”
One performance in the summer of 1975 was managed by MacLow. Here is a 6-minute excerpt from the audio recording of that event.
A few years ago my students and I discussed this work. Some didn't find it beautiful; some had doubts about its effectiveness as an alternative mode of elegy or memorialization. Most found it beautiful, worthy and a good alternative to the usual methods we use to describe or narrate the life of a dead friend or colleague. You can hear a recording of the entire class session (1 hr 20 minutes).
PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard's own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound's lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII. Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A P O U N D. Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more.
PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard’s own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound’s lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII. Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A P O U N D. Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more.
On October 11, 1990, Jackson Mac Low read from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons for seven minutes. You'll hear the voice of Charles Bernstein as he and others (members of Bernstein's class at Buffalo at the time) scramble to find a copy of the Stein. Then Mac Low spent a few minutes discussing the "Objects" section.
Thanks to the efforts of Anna Zalokostas, we at PennSound have now segmented every one of the readings by Jackson Mac Low for which we have recordings. Through this work we re-discover that Jackson read four sections of Forties at the Ear Inn in '92; that in 1995 at a Little Magazine seesion he read "This Occasion, a Poem for John Cage after his 79th birthday"; that at a Radio Reading Series Project session in 1998, he explained Forties and discussed how he applied the diastic method to Pound's Cantos; that he read "Baltimore Porches" at the Ear Inn in '82...and much more. Have a look at our newly revised Jackson Mac Low author page.
In late spring/summer 2001 Jim O'Neil, then the higher education beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed me at length for a story about my electronic pedagogy. The essay would appear in the (now defunct) Inquirer Sunday Magazine in August of '01. In '99 and '00 I had taught three all-online versions of my modern & contemporary American poetry course, English 88. And I had for years been using chat rooms (the earliest was a MOO called PennMOO) and listservs to enable the students' discussion to be the central activity of the course. The six-year-old piece seems a bit quaint to me now, and Jim's focus (in several middle paragraphs) on my life and "development" as a teacher is a bit embarrassing, but the narrative is more or less right. Here's a passage from the essay, starting with the end of the biographical stuff:
In the early 1980s, while pursuing his doctorate in English at the University of Virginia, Filreis began to teach. At the time, the university purchased early-version desktop computers. "They were big white machines, in the shape of a huge space helmet," Filreis said. "They ran a word processor program called Magic Wand."
Filreis stored set pieces on computer, each describing a common student writing mistake. He gave each set piece a number. Then, marking student papers by hand, he put a number in the margin near each mistake, and attached the appropriate computer-generated commentary.
"This changed my relationship with the students," Filreis said. "I wanted to engage the students in a conversation." In effect, he had created a low-tech prototype of the teaching style he would later refine. He calls it "dialogic pedagogy."
When e-mail and the Internet appeared, Filreis, who arrived at Penn in 1985, easily integrated these new tools. The core of that teaching philosophy mirrors the course material of English 88.
Postmodernist poets focused on the process of their poetry, rather than on what the words in their poems actually said. The purpose was to make poetry and language new again.
There's no better way to describe Filreis' teaching style. He uses technology to free class time for discussion, which to Filreis is more important than the course material itself. The point is to develop his students' ability to think critically, not to have memorized every last fact about Gertrude Stein. And yet, he said, through that active engagement with the material, students end up remembering more of the content.
Here's Filreis' teaching style in action: By late April, the students in English 88 are studying the postmodern poets.
Shortly after class gets out one day, the English 88 listserv starts to hum. Some students like the postmodernist message. Others think a poem whose words made no conventional sense was ridiculous. At one point during the raging debate, Filreis e-mails everyone a brief message to guide the discussion along. He cites a quote from one student, who chafed at the postmodernist experiment: "I disagree with the idea that effective poetry can consistently be made by imposing an arbitrary set of rules on some subject and following them rigorously," wrote the student, Jacob Kraft.
Filreis' seven-word reply reads: "Is this not what a sonnet is?"The online jousting plants the seeds for an equally charged debate in class a few days later over an elegy performed in 1975 by postmodernist Jackson Mac Low, called "A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore". Mac Low took his friend's name, used a computer to churn out every word that could be constructed from reshuffling the letters of the name, and then got friends to read those 960 words aloud in a staged performance. The work generates intense give-and-take among the students on whether old-fashioned elegies did justice to the dead.
"Who's to say words can capture the essence of a human being?" says Laine McDonnell. "Who's to say these words of Mac Low's don't capture his friend more?" "Aesthetically, it leaves a lot to be desired," pipes up Jake Kraft. "The postmodernists are only interested in the process. They throw aesthetics out the window."
Now that Filreis has broken down the walls of the classroom, he wants to break through all other confines of the university setting. "I want to start recruiting 'teachers' from the extended Penn community," he said, clearly thinking back to Carl Peterson's influence on him at Colgate. "I want more electronic mentoring. I want to deepen the experiment. I'd love to be liberated from the semester so I could teach whomever, wherever, whenever."
Thanks to technology, he has already liberated himself. He has created a program through which faculty can mentor incoming freshmen over the Internet before they even get to campus. He has cajoled some faculty to participate in online book groups for Penn alumni. And his own Web site - which registered more than 2.6 million hits in the last six months and includes extensive resources on modern poetry, the 1950s and the Holocaust - has become a helpful tool for high-school teachers nationwide.
Filreis is one of a small but growing cadre of professors across the country who are changing classroom pedagogy - and not merely by turning the old-fashioned lecture into a glitzy PowerPoint presentation. Many colleges provide grants and training for professors interested in using the new technology, and on every college campus there's at least one professor harnessing the basic technology of the Internet to free class time for richer, student-driven discussion.