Commentaries - August 2009
Joyce Carol Oates (in an interview with Grace Waltman and Jessica McCort) talks about running and imagination.
JCO: Oh yes? Are you a runner?
GW: I am a runner, and I like to be in movement.
JCO: Just like me.
GW: So I was really struck by your experience, when you that you were in London, but you were dreaming of Detroit, even though all the while you were actually running in Hyde Park (in London, England). I was interested in how a person can envision one geographic location, even while they're in another one. And, so, my question is - for example, if you might be running - do you find yourself more aware of the surroundings you're envisioning, or [of] those that are actually around you? And, how might that function in your creative process?
JCO: Well, it's kind of a complex question because the act of running is a really a manifold. Sometimes you're working on a problem that's formal, and you're looking for language, or you're looking for a way into a text that hasn't been written yet. Sometimes when you're running, you're looking for a way to edit the text that's all finished. And so, these are kind of formal preoccupations. I find the act of running very meditative and almost trancelike. I don't like the treadmill nearly as much as running, but I can do the treadmill if it's really cold out. I almost go into a kind of trance, and it's very good for figuring things out spatially - the way the text itself is like a paragraph set that maybe could be reshuffled or eliminated, and that somehow is a very different sort of activity from running and envisioning a different land - or cityscape. And, I think, probably, I don't do that much of envisioning another landscape. I tend to be very interested in what I'm looking at and what I'm seeing, and I find landscape to have a spiritual, or psychological, or emotional value in the text, and that becomes like a character. So, my apprehension of, say, the city of Detroit, would probably not be somebody else's. You know, I'm looking at it as a landscape or a cityscape of heightened drama in which something's about to happen - as some of the backdrop. But we know that a landscape or a cityscape is basically an entity that has no animation in itself. You know, we're bringing to it, or we're projecting onto it. It's a very interesting question. I often feel that the solution to a formal problem will be found on a run, or at the end of a run, or coming back from a run, whereas if I stayed home at my desk, then I wouldn't get it. And sometimes when I travel - I'm getting off an airplane in a different city and walking very quickly along in an airport - I sort of feel that I'm coming to something, and sometimes I have these strange little revelations that help me with a knotty problem. And so I think, though I'm not a mystical person at all - I'm actually quite skeptical - so I think that if I had stayed home and hadn't come to St. Louis, you know, would I have figured out about how to end the story? Because I figured something out about an hour ago, and I felt as though it was kind of waiting for me here in St. Louis. But if I'd stayed home, then maybe I wouldn't have gotten it, maybe ever, or not so quickly.
I just received a copy of English Studies in Canada volume 33, issue 4.I just received a copy of English Studies in Canada volume 33, issue 4. (It's dated December 2007 and so I assume it's been delayed.) This is a special issue edited by Louis Cabri and Peter Quartermain, with a "digital sound editor" - namely PennSound's own Mike Hennessey. The issue is titled "On Discreteness: Event and Sound in Poetry." The table of contents is tantalizing, including: Bob Perelman on listening to WCW's "The Sea-Elephant," Brook Houglum on Kenneth Rexroth and radio reading, Brian Reed on Gertrude Stein speaking, Sarah Parry on the "LP era" in poetry, and Geoffrey Hlibchuk on the relationship between shortwave number stations and 20th-century poetry. Can't wait to read this stuff! And listen: comes with a CD of recordings edited by Hennessey.
See the PoemTalk blog for a description of and link to the newly released 21st episode of the PoemTalk podcast series - this one a discussion of a poem by Charles Bernstein. Above, from left to right: Marcella Durand, Hank Lazer, Eli Goldblatt, and myself, in my office at the Writers House which doubles as a recording studio.
“Restlessness is discontent and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man and I will show you a failure.” Thomas Edison said that.
Charles Bernstein, "In a Restless World Like This Is"
In PT #21 we talk about a poem by Charles Bernstein written in 2002, published in World on Fire and eventually collected in Girly Man: "In a Restless World Like This Is." As Marcella Durand informs the PoemTalkers, the title is taken from the lyrics of a sweet 1940s song, sung later by Nat King Cole, Doris Day, et alia. Why derive the title from so sentimental a source? Hank Lazer and Marcella each speculate: it's the postwar thing, bitter-sweet, looking simultaneously forward and back, done with it but still needing the balm. Okay, but why now, here--why in this poem?
It's a post-9/11 poem. Eli Goldblatt describes for us Bernstein's initial written responses to 9/11, providing us a context for this poem's unstraightforward all-preamble going-nowhere-ness. Al asserts the obvious: the poem enacts the restlessness the speaker feels: linguistically, tonally, idiomatically. The "no" of the fourth line is one of those staring-over words, as is, of course, "well" in line 8. The poem gives us an alternative "way" or path from the (non)start of its opening to the (non)finish of its ending. It is the opposite of an A->Z poem. There is not a single direction, not a point, and, needless to say--ah, but we at PoemTalk say it!--that is its point.
Where are we going? What is going to happen next? Is it narratively possible to discern ("Not long ago" is story-telling phrasing)? Ah, but "maybe I dreamt it / Or made it up, or have suddenly lost / Track of its train." If you decide you need to go "In one direction" only, you'll find--note the contorted, merged idiomatic language--that "you'll / Have to go on before the way back has / Become totally indivisible." The final word, the PoemTalkers agree, is a national word--a term from the pledge of allegiance to the United States of America, yet a notion that counters rather than abets the concept of discrete parts, clear paths, moving along the road from regress to progress.
In a Restless World Like This Is
Not long ago, or maybe I dreamt it
Or made it up, or have suddenly lost
Track of its train in the hocus pocus
Of the dissolving days; no, if I bend
The turn around the corner, come at it
From all three sides at once, or bounce the ball
Against all manner of bleary-eyed fortune
Tellers--well, you can see for yourselves there's
Nothing up my sleeves, or notice even
Rocks occasionally break if enough
Pressure is applied. As far as you go
In one direction, all the further you'll
Have to go on before the way back has
Become totally indivisible.
Our recording of the poem was made during a moving outdoor reading in September 2003 at the Kelly Writers House. It and all PoemTalk poems are available through PennSound.
We note that the phrase "World on Fire" is also taken from a popular song--of 1941. Here's more.
As always, at the end, we gather some paradise. Marcella's suggestion, which was omitted from the final edit, was one we are happy to pass along nonetheless: Tisa Bryant's new book, Leon Works.
We at PoemTalk are grateful as ever to James LaMarre for his expert engineering and directing, and to Steve McLaughlin, our masterful sound editor.