Commentaries - May 2009

This was the first year of our ArtsEdge artist-in-residence program, which we’re doing in collaboration with the department of fine arts in Penn’s School of Design. We offer housing, workspace, and a significant rent subsidy — and, if apt, a course to teach. Greg Romero was our first ArtsEdge-er, a playwright. Not long ago he staged a play-in-progress at the Writers House and today the Philly Fringe Festival blog ran an entry about it.

The new episode of PoemTalk is out today — about Rodrigo Toscano’s poem called “Poetics.” Listen here.

Rodrigo Toscano, "Poetics"


We know one poet who can bring Kim Jong-il, Montezuma and Maggie Thatcher--and us--together to the table. It's Rodrigo Toscano, and more specifically the Rodrigo Toscano who wrote the poems collected in the book Platform. The word "platform," Al notes in this newest PoemTalk episode, suggests something programmatic, something being contended overall. And one plank, as it were, of this platform is--for Toscano--the relatively light (comic, playful, quick) poem "Poetics," suggesting an aesthetic program, maybe even an ars poetica. Taking this titular cue, the PoemTalkers this time, Randall Couch, Linh Dinh, and Emily Abendroth, sought to piece together the ranging geo-political references, heard the many different registers, tried to place them in a musical idiom, and either concluded that the "Psycho-Acoustic[...] / Jangling" makes a beautiful sound and has a special political force or that the jangling, while beautiful, puts the platform's meaning just out of reach. Al, Emily, and Randall take the former view of the poem, while Linh, in a dissenting mood, takes the latter.

That musical idiom is jazz. The political import of "Pyongyang"--the jarring disharmonious pesty capital of North Korea, an uncooperative element in any poem--leads us in one direction. But its sheer sound sounds more like jazz than communism.

But it does...

as an In Walk Bud
flips the whooole session
on its head

in range
and dash out

"In Walked Bud" is a Thelonious Monk piece (made into a soundy poem by jazz-minded Amiri Baraka). The session is what we call a gathering of jazz musicians somewhat improvisationally making their special noise, always a greater aural whole than the parts alone. The poem is a geopolitical session. The lexicals brought within range "clash," yes, but they also "dash out": appearing off the scale, as Pyongyang does in almost any so-called postcommunist discussion, and yet crazy musical 14ths can be worked just right to produce "perfect fifths / effects."

If you like this poem, it's because Toscano helps you imagine that the improvised postcommunist joint can start hoppin' and that a poem is just about the only place, for now, where such a "real summit meeting" (jazzworld phrase for bringing together just the right [blues] elements) can take place.

Really? Does Rodrigo Toscano really want Margaret Thatcher to join in--"as guest / jew-harp / soloist?" Sounds like a good deal of mockery there. But if she does join this performance of a Postmodernity Rag, notwithstanding the "formative / contradictions" of the European Union remaining "unresolved," we are left in the end with a reminder that we are all implicated. Postmodern political life makes a "ho'" of itself, just as Maggie does, just as we do. Emily Abendroth comments on this: can we like or accept one aspect of postmodern life but keep clear of and unimplicated in the rest?

You got the microphone now, so...let's hear it. From the platform, your oration might begin: "A specter is haunting poetic discourse...."

- - -

Here's our PennSound recording of the poem, made in Buffalo in November of 2001.

Julie Harris (b. 1925) recited poems by Emily Dickinson in three sessions, the first in 1960 and the second and third in 1961. I own the LP. We at PennSound will try to get permission from Ms. Harris and/or HarperAudio (who have assumed control of the old Caedmon recordings) and perhaps someday will be able to offer these remarkable readings for free as downloadable mp3 files.

Only very rarely — and even then, cautiously — do I think of heroism in the old-fashioned sense. When I do, I can count four or five figures (of any era) whom I consider heroic. One of these is Kazik. Here is Kazik, alive and mostly well, a few years ago, on the set of Uprising (standing with Stephen Moyer, the actor who played him in the movie). A few years ago I had a chance to speak with Moyer about what it felt like to stand with Kazik, to play him, to attempt to do justice to the decisive extremity of his behavior. After this talk — certainly indirect contact with the man — I was sweaty in the palms. This was the city of my people — who’d gone, easily or with difficulty and maybe even somewhat resistantly — to the Umschlagplatz and gotten on the trains, bound for Treblinka. Kazik of course was one of those who did not get on the train. What is my relation to him? It’s hard to decipher.

I promise that others on my list of heroes do not create such complex figurations.

My son, by the way, owns a signed copy of this photo.