Commentaries - June 2010

Is Flarf corrosive? (PoemTalk #33)

Sharon Mesmer, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington”

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Kenneth Goldsmith, Nada Gordon and Steve McLaughlin gathered in Al’s office/recording studio at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Sharon Mesmer’s flarfy gem, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington.” The recording we used was made at the Writers House in February of 2007, at a mini Flarf Poetry Festival organized by our own Steve McLaughlin. We’re pretty sure that the poem was first posted to the flarflist – a listserv of flarf practitioners (and a few nonpracticing advocates) that serves as a medium for trying out all sorts of improvisational and quasi-improvisational poetic “bottom-feeding” (to use Kenny G.’s positive phrase). Is flarf poetic, non-poetic or anti-poetic, or, anyway, what combination is it of those three? That turns out to be the crux of our discussion. What “poetic” elements and devices does Mesmer retain and employ, and to what effect? Gary Sullivan originally defined flarf writing as, among other things, “corrosive,” and when Al asks the group whether Mesmer’s poem is corrosive, a fascinating discussion ensues: in part, we seem to move away from Sullivan’s notion. And since this is a poem, at least at first (at least superficially [superficially?!]) about Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot during a boondoggling hunting trip in Texas, it seems reasonable to ask about the political meaning or import of the piece. The answer is hardly straightforward. At one point Steve pulls out the smoking gun (as it were), proving that Sharon Mesmer took most of the poem verbatim from internet sources. And what about taste? Al puts it straight to Kenny, who has sometimes argued that one conceptual work is effective, while another work is not--the key being, the quality of choice of of concept. So what, Al asks, is the role of aesthetic distinction and valuation? Nada adds some possibly quite relevant biographical information, so we are led to ponder: What does Mesmer’s family of blood-on-apron butchers and her own principled vegetarianism have to do with the politics of the poem – its critique of a culture in which everything, actually and figuratively, tastes like chicken? It is, of course, a culture that includes this poem and makes it entirely (and specifically) possible.Here is Sharon Mesmer's PennSound author page, and here is a direct link to a recording of the poem. Here is a link to one of Mesmer's internet sources.

Our engineer and director for this program was James LaMarre.

watch as I teach Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man"

I lead a discussion of Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man" - a video that has been captured for YouTube in two parts.

medical students should know about Nazi doctors, don't you think?

Thanks to Sam Sharf, vigilant newspaper editor and former student of my course on the holocaust, for making me aware of this announcement:

University of Pennsylvania Students Participate in
Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics
Rachel Hadler, Jin Suk Kim, and Karen Revere
Join Groundbreaking Program for Medical and Law Students

New York, NY — Rachel Hadler, Jim Suk Kim, and Karen Revere, medical students in the class of 2011 at the University of Pennsylvania, are among the 30 students chosen by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics to participate in its inaugural two week program in New York, Berlin, and Poland for law and medical school students. Fifteen students were chosen from each field. The FASPE programs instruct students on the contemporary ethical issues facing their professions — using the Holocaust and the conduct of their professions in Nazi Germany as a framework for study.

FASPE’s goal is to provide tomorrow’s professional leaders with opportunities to increase their awareness and preparedness for the ethical issues they will confront as professionals. By educating students about the causes of the Holocaust and promoting their awareness of contemporary related issues, FASPE seeks to prevent future collaboration in genocide, racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia by professional and religious leaders.

Ms. Hadler said, “The extent to which the ideal of the nameless, faceless, even irrelevant subject remains in our research is frightening….” Mr. Kim said, “The ethics of medicine are so closely intertwined with humanism. Humanism in medical ethics is what allows us to become the true healers for our patients.” Ms. Revere added, “It is uncomfortable to examine our own research methods against those of the Nazis. …to observe that a slippery slope exists, and to urge that we remain ever-conscious of its dangers.”

$110,000 in Energy Saved in One Hour Yesterday

Overhead view of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania

 This figure is now official. By powering down yesterday afternoon between 3 and 4 PM, the University of Pennsylvania consumed less energy to the extent, figured as cost, of $110,000. Yes, $110,000 in less energy used in one hour by one large institution. This meant: people across the university switched off or dimmed lights, unplugged computers, turned off air conditioners and fans. (I noticed that many folks went outside for meetings and breaks.) I'm sure the office of the Executive Vice President will announce the savings in kilowatts, which will of course be the most significant data. But, still, $110,000 that would otherwise be unavailable?* I hope Craig Carnoroli, whose office organized this (in conjunction with PECO), decides to spend the money on something very visible and very green. On 364 days of the year I am glad I'm not doing Craig's job, but today I would feel more certain than ever that large institutions can push hard to cut back. This might seem a small step, but let me give an example of collateral effect. Carton Rogers--the wonderful, kind, smart and thoughtful director of our libraries--asked his staff to turn off all lights for this first-ever trial in powering down. He was told by his building folks that some of the lighting in the stacks was so old that they worried about whether they could be successfully turned back on again afterward. This of course would be a hazard so they made the right decision to leave those lights on. But don't you think that today Carton is looking into rewiring those lights? These are 1950s-era bulb types, copper-wired no doubt, wires winding their way through a large building whose open stacks are like a rabbit warren. Let's get back deep into these old buildings and see what green economies can be achieved.

Well anyway, Craig, if you're reading this: I can think of a poet I'd like to hire. With an okay salary and all the wonderful Penn benefits, it would come to around $100,000 annually. You can keep the $10K for whatever. I promise to hire someone in the field of eco-poetics.

* I suppose we need to balance this against loss of productivity. This is probably why such a stunt is no good during the height of the academic year. But it is perfect for a summer afternoon. Maybe 4-5 would be better. We should consider shifting full-time staff work hours to 8-4 instead of 9-5. That 4-5 time is in Philly one of the hottest hours of the day (I'm betting that 2-3 is the hottest).

class on Ashbery back by popular demand

This earlier post has been so often visited and requested that I've decided to re-post. I know this goes against both the spirit and design of blogs (after all, you can just search for the earlier entry), but so be it:

Recently my students and I finished up a "chapter" of English 88 on the New York School. The final class in this part of the course was devoted to some collaborative close readings of several poems by John Ashbery: "The Grapevine", "What Is Poetry", and "Hard Times". (Well, the discussion of "Hard Times," due to lack of time at that point, is really just me reading the poem and making a few comments.) A number of people watched the video live on their computers at home and work, and several of them telephoned in to ask questions or make comments. Here's your link to the video recording of the class.