Commentaries - December 2008

One of my favorite early poems of Jack Spicer is “Psychnoanalysis: An Elegy.” Check it out in Peter Gizzi’s and Kevin Killian’s edition of the The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (subtitled “my vocabulary did this to me”), on pages 31–33. (Wesleyan published this fine book. Get thyself a copy soon.)

After reading around in the Collected, I decided to go back to our PennSound Spicer page, and listened again to this remarkably confident, resonant and yet slightly weird baritone voice. A radio voice, was the phrase we used to use for such a person. Yes, Jack Spicer had a radio voice. Which is unrelated — or, then again, perhaps entirely related — to the poet’s penchant for using the radio as a conceit in his digressive commentary. See, at the bottom of this entry, my favorite Spicerian comment the wanders into radio.

So I listened to Spicer again. I noticed that we at PennSound have made available an undated four-minute, fifty-two-second recording of his reading of “The Song of the Bird in the Loins.” Nearly five minutes to read that short poem. Hmm, too much time for that piece. Perhaps, I thought, he reads the poem and then offers some commentary. So I listened, eager to hear more than that one poem. Lo and behold: the recording is not just that poem but three early works. The other two are “The Dancing Ape” and ... “Psychoanalysis: An Elegy.” So there’s my poem! Now we’ve unpacked the three, made separate mp3 recordings for each, and now I’ll recommend that everyone reading this blog have a listen to this “elegy,” a smart, luminous, and slightly unhinged rejoinder to the triumph of the therapeutic.

Q: Are you actually going through a transition in your writing?

Jack Spicer: I’m going through a transition. In fact, I don’t have no job, and I ...

Q: No, I mean in your actual writing.

Jack Spicer: Well, if the radio set has three batteries which are gone and one that’s still left, that isn’t a transition in the radio broadcast. It’s a transition in the radio set, namely that you don’t have very much power. And these things that happen to you in life are like that. If you’re only going on one transistor and you’re a four-transistor radio, you’re not going to be able to get in the outlying stations very easy. KFI doesn’t come in.


I spent three days with Susan Sontag in 2003 — utterly memorable days. She had just published Regarding the Pain of Others, which I had just read. As we drove in my little old Toyota from the train station to the Writers House we talked about the book and in effect she quizzed me on what she had written. I breathlessly dove into the most nuanced distinction she makes in the last part of the book and got an “A” for my paraphrase. Susan then warmed up considerably, having decided that I could hold my own with ideas. Once we got settled and I had a chance to tell her what we were trying to do at the Writers House (create a salon for writers of all kinds, maintaining a good deal of independence while using university resources) she really started to get into it. During the three-hour session with the students (who were very nervous at first) we talked about her novels primarily, which they had read and discussed carefully in the month prior to her arrival. While she was dismissive of some students’ responses and questions, there was always a baseline of gratitude that we were talking about her fiction, about which she cared a great deal, to the point of frustration sometimes with folks who kept asking her about her essays on radical styles and postmodern art theories of the 1960s. That night she read from her fiction and took questions. Then we had a home-cooked dinner, with about ten people, in the dining room of the Writers House. The next morning I walked her from her hotel back to the House and she and I talked for an hour or so, taking audience questions.

The recording of that discussion is now available as a downloadable mp3. I haven’t listened to it myself — ever. But I’m sure I’ll hear it in the coming days.

After the interview we had a few hours before her train back to New York. She wanted to go to the PMA to look at a huge surreal-yet-realist photograph by Jeff Wall — a staged psuedo-documentary of dead Russian soldiers scattered in a trench in Afghanastan shortly after a rocket attack had hit them. She had written about this photograph, called “Dead Troops Talk,” in her new book but had either never seen it in the original or had only seen it once (I think the former). She knew this huge gruesome fantasy picture was on display at PMA and was bound to see it, but not alone. She did not like to see art alone, so in a very social, upbeat, can-do sort of way convened a bunch of us to drive over to the museum to have a look. We went in two cars. Problem, though: there was a blockbuster show and (if I’m remembering this rightly) part of the museum was closed, the part where the big photo hung. This wasn’t going to stop Susan Sontag. It happened to Blake Martin, my assistant and coordinator of the Writers House Fellows program, had a friend who worked at the PMA. Blake called her and said that Susan Sontag wanted to be admitted to a closed section of the building. Somehow special entry was all arranged. Susan Sontag is coming! Susan Sontag is coming! A museum comes to attention. So, after some VIP handling, the skirting of long lines awaiting the blockbuster (was it Degas?), there we were, maybe eight or ten of us, standing in a huge otherwise empty half-lit gallery — we and several curators who had come out of the woodwork — looking at this devastatingly fine photograph about pain, watching Sontag watch it, hearing her talk about representations of suffering, about war, about the cold war and art, and we stood there for what seems to me, as I remember it, a long long time. Mostly standing in silence. Learning again to look at art with an intensity modeled by one of the most intense people of the late twentieth century.

Three Penn partners created The Common Press — a letterpress project — at few years ago, happily: the Fine Arts Department of the School of Design; the Van Pelt Library; and us, the Kelly Writers House. The Common Press blog gives a pretty good sense of the types and range of projects undertaken at the press. Johanna Drucker has been a big supporter of this venture (as those who know Johanna’s work as a maker of art books and an historian of art books will easily imagine) and during Johanna’s last visit she and some Writers House people went to the presses and created a collaborative collage-y broadside. Below you see photos of the broadside, of Johanna and Kaegan Sparks, and of most of the gang including Mike Hennessey, Erin Gautsche, Michael Tom Vassallo, and Mike Van Helder (roughly from right to left).

Yesterday I spent the day at Harvard and met a number of very interesting folks along the way. One was Zachary Sifuentes, who has written out all of the poems of Emily Dickinson and created a powerful visual effect which Zach also suggests conveys something of the sound (or at least, I guess, the idea of the sound) of Dickinson’s poetry. “What does sound look like,” he asks, “in Dickinson’s poetry? With their associative logic, tangential reasoning, and circuitry, Dickinson’s lines hint at a shuffling of the mind. In other words, the linear behavior of her poems is anything but linear. Instead, her lines are large flocks of starlings, or cormorants, or even sparrows, fugitive from apprehension.” At Zach’s web site you can see photographs of the writing on display, both close-ups and far-offs. And you can watch a video of the writing in process. Here’s your link to the Complete Poems project, and be sure, while there, to explore his other works.

My hour-long discussion with novelist Cynthia Ozick is now available as a downloadable mp3 recording. Cynthia came to the Writers House as a “Fellow” in 2006. Our conversation took place on March 21.