Commentaries - April 2011

Ambience and audience

image by Noah Saterstrom
Image by Noah Saterstrom

I’m always interested in the physical, digital, and in-between spaces audio recordings document and inhabit. This playlist samples some combinations of various recording environments, paying a bit of attention to often overlooked aspects such as tape hiss and telephone distortion, as well as considering sonic contexts like the classroom and direct-to-digital readings. When I listen to recordings, I’m always calculating my distance from them, from the physicality of the reader’s voice, from the artifacts of recording technology, from the various, multiple sets of imagined audiences and first-run hearers of the poem. In this playlist I’m thinking about space and spatiality in terms of the materiality of the sound recording and as a thematic concern in several of the tracks. This list explores both how one moves through and articulates space and how spatiality is experienced as a listener. Although paying attention to micro-level details risks focusing on the potentially trivial, I think it is worthwhile to consider the sedimentary layers of audience and interference infused within the object of the audio file.

 I’ll begin with a recording of Joseph Ceravolo reading at his home in Bloomfield, NJ in Spring of 1968. In the first poem Rain there is a moment of near silence (with a little tape hiss) before the music arrives, then both hiss and music are superimposed with Ceravolo’s voice. I almost hear the word “surrounded” echoed in the background singing voice when Ceravolo reads that word. The music alternates between interference and sympathetic emphasis throughout this entire session, with serendipitous moments constantly emerging and dissipating. The space I imagine when listening to these poems is very private. I don’t picture anyone else in the room, although I could be mistaken. I don’t have much bibliographic context for them, which makes me curious about how they were distributed, how much conscious control Ceravolo exerted over the overlaps between the music and his poems, and what kinds of listeners he imagined once the recording was created. Compare the atmosphere of this recording with a live reading ten years later at the Ear Inn. Ceravolo’s introductory comments and his quick, energetic reading of poems such as Lightning stand in stark contrast to the earlier home recording in the way they emphasize his relationship to a particular New York poetry scene in the late 1970’s.

Lisa Robertson reads and discusses several pieces from her book Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture on Episode #204 of Leonard Schwartz’s radio show Cross-Cultural Poetics, which is archived on PennSound.  Listen to Robertson read Spatial Synthetics: A Theory. In Robertson’s conversation with Schwartz following the reading of that piece, she discusses some of her own theories of how ideas of space and the body function in this work: “I wanted to make sure that my theory of space was non-abstract and rooted in bodily pleasure.” In addition to the engaging content of the piece itself, I was especially interested in the intricacies of the sonic environment in that it was broadcast on radio, with Robertson reading over the phone, and Schwartz responding from the studio space, then later distributed as a sound file on PennSound. Because of the dialogic nature of Schwartz’s show and all the subtle layers of mediation, I found myself occasionally listening to Schwartz’s listening to Robertson, hearing subtle responses in his breathing or an occasional, barely audible laugh in other parts of the broadcast. I found myself paying attention to the contrast in textures between Robertson’s phone reading here and, say, this reading of her poem Lucite (from her book Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip) at the POG series in Tucson. By the way, there’s an excellent review of the book, focusing on this particular poem, by Emily Critchley on How2.

Farid Matuk’s poem An American in Dallas was recorded specifically for Jacket2, at his home in Texas. This type of recording (one that begins in a somewhat similar space to Ceravolo’s but was consciously created for digital listening) is fairly rare in the PennSound Archive. I find that kind of space really charged with an exciting kind of intimacy, rather than feeling spatial neutrality, or non-located in space. I like knowing that this poem was recorded in proximity to some of the people and places mentioned by name. In this context, lines like: “Where should my perception sit/to be marked present?” take on new resonances. In many ways the poem is rooted in a particular landscape, but the consciousness of the speaker is always moving around, switching vantage points, moving through a series of minute sensory impressions and social spaces.

Bernadette Mayer’s 1978 class discussing her book Memory , from the Naropa audio archives, is a fascinating listen for a number of reasons. It’s an incredible document of Mayer talking about the processes and thinking behind some of her most ambitious projects. I’ve listened to it several times primarily paying attention to the ideas and lively exchanges, but in the background there’s a barely audible soundscape of something that seems like singing or chanting. In the talk, Mayer says (about her piece Memory): “I was still trying to get myself away from the printed book. I was trying to figure out a way-- I mean where is that space? Where should the reader be?” There is an impulse in much of Mayer’s work to try to let in as much sensory data as possible, to enlarge and amplify what registers as significant. I’d like to bring this kind of attention to the digital audio file, which I’ll be picking up again periodically in later posts.

More work by artist Noah Saterstom here and here

beneath the Highway 24 overpass, on MacArthur Blvd. between Telegraph and MLK

I’ve been thinking about the recent and hopefully temporary closure of 21 Grand, an interdisciplinary arts spaced forced to vacate its most current location at 416 25th St. after a battle with the city of Oakland over a cabaret permit, a permit it operated without for 10 years. (Here is a decent re-cap of the whole nightmare.)

It’s still feels weird that 21 Grand is gone for-the-time-being-fingers-crossed, given how important a space it’s been for so many Bay Area arts communities. And I’m thinking of the hundreds? could it be hundreds? of poetry readings I've attended there, how poetry was part of its interdisciplinary focus from the beginning, in 2000, with David Horton’s first series at the original location on 21 Grand Ave., followed by New Brutalism at the 449B 23rd St. spot, and finally New Yipes and the New Reading Series at the last address on 25th St. I’m thinking of the people who curated and ran these series with so much devotion: Michael Cross, Julian T. Brolaski, Cynthia Sailers, David Larsen, Brandon Brown, Alli Warren, Michael Nicoloff, and Erika Staiti. Am I missing anyone? If I am, or if you’re a poet who has read at 21 Grand in the last ten years, you can probably find your name among the musicians and artists on the wall of names Sarah Lockhart transcribed, of all those who performed or presented at 21 Grand.

I was thinking I would talk about the flurry of energy and activity around other east bay reading series in the wake of 21 Grand’s closure, and how many of those are happening in private homes. (The New Reading Series curators made a decision to stick with 21 Grand, meaning that series is also temporarily inoperative until 21 Grand finds a new home.) But also that many Small Press Traffic readings this year have been held at the Oakland CCA campus, and how different that space is from the San Francisco location. In the meantime, and again somewhat late to the game, I was given a copy of Novella Carpenter’s 2009 bestseller about urban farming in Oakland, Farm City. I got a little obsessed with this book, and its depiction of Oakland, finding myself totally compelled at moments by the the story of growing food on an unused lot slated for condominium development, the utopia of neighbors and cooperation presented there, the introduction of “food security” into my daily vocabulary once and for all, the way the book focuses so much of its attention and space on City Slicker Farms and their work in West Oakland. How the book’s “I” moves slowly into surprising relationships and knowledge, coming to know the place she didn’t when she first moved there/here in 2003. At the same time I was sometimes a little weirded out, that feeling of reading about the place where one lives, experiencing it reflected back in representational terms that don’t always feel accurate, or which feel, at moments, handled and processed by editors intent on selling the book, and the city, to a mass market. Then also the odd feeling of reading about the pigs and rabbits and chickens and ducks and turkeys only 10 blocks away from where I live, and having had no idea.

Immediately after reading the last few pages of Farm City, I went on the internet to see what Carpenter's been up to. It was like watching two sequels in rapid succession. She purchased the unused lot, previously a squat garden, for $30,000! I could go learn about raising goats! I could tour the farm, and even, for an 8$ donation, have obtained a rabbit pot pie if I’d gotten there a little earlier, before the city of Oakland came after Carpenter. Because here comes the part where your heart is sinking a little, the part where someone from the city comes out and starts taking pictures, and then come the permit violations and requirements, then the paypal donation campaign, and then, despite raising money for the permit, your heart is really sinking here, comes the cease and desist letter, although it doesn’t seem clear what she is supposed to cease and desist from. Perhaps living there, here, at all. (There is so much about this story I am trying to process, or just don’t get, like the moment where Carpenter apologizes for erroneously blaming her plight on anonymous complaints by animal rights activists—there is a lot of raising and killing animals for food in the book—but simultaneously lashes out at the House Rabbit Society. So much to learn about the terms and arguments of this community.)

I’ve been talking about this book with anyone who will listen, and connecting it to pretty much everything, like after Ted Rees read at Small Press Traffic a few weeks ago, I asked at the break if he’d read it. I was thinking about Farm City in relation to the piece Ted performed, which begins with a scene in New York where he’s visiting friends and someone shows him a glossy coffee table book on punk houses, with big glossy photographs, and Ted's piece talks for a minute about how gross it feels to have the alternative social forms and relations one is committed to reflected back as a series of images about architecture or fashion. And while this is not a new story, the glup glup of money slurping up and regurgitating the radical as a set of images, it’s still a viscerally awful feeling as it glurps up one’s bedroom, one’s arm, one’s fellows. Ted’s piece starts there and then goes on to represent those alternative social forms in less glossy, more complicated ways, queasy and complicit, like the moment when somebody at the punk house has to make some money to pay some rent, and while having sex for money, one’s head banging against the wall of a poorly built hotel, one’s head reverberates, basically, against the development, with it, the dry wall, thrown together. Ted and I talked for a second about what it means when something radical and autonomous becomes visible, what happens when oppositional work, the squat garden or punk house flying under the radar, uncloaks. I'm thinking about the reasons one might want to uncloak (perhaps to make the idea that people can grow their own food more widely visible, more possible) but also the perils of doing so.  Uncloaking. Often the uncloaking is outside of one’s control. Or money comes in like a black light, highlighting the abstract splotches of small un-glurped areas adjacent to the glurped parts. You’re adjacent, it can glurp you too. 

I think I was trying to talk about what happens when the secret local, the self-governing, becomes visible to the law. I’m thinking this in relation to a quote Anne Boyer sent along a few days ago, she was preparing to teach Rousseau’s Emile, and was thinking about that tension between institutions and communities which I talked about in a recent post. The quote she sent is from a lecture by Ian Johnston, a section discussing ceremony, memory, memorials, how "Rituals of this sort serve to hold the community together, to reinforce everyone's sense of belonging together, to remind everyone of their mutual interdependency and the uniqueness of their shared community. A small group of people held together in such a way will all know each other, will share a common sense of belonging and understanding, and will thus have ways to deal with inherent tensions which arise, without recourse always to courts and police and impartial judges. For instance, communities held together in this way often require few codified laws, little formal education about what the world means, and no arguments about rights, since the basic rule, as old as Roman Law, is simply if it's not the custom it's not the law (non mos, non ius). The traditional ways preserved in rituals contain the means to resolve such difficulties as may arise.”

In her email, Anne said,  “I was thinking maybe that maybe the fundamental conflict between poetry communities & institutions is the feeling that the one brings with it the codified laws and an emphasis on individual freedom/achievement, the other the somewhat mysterious and arbitrary, sometimes frighteningly anti-rational habits of human communities (with all that life, death, sex, babies, memory).  It seems also like there is in poetry that forever repeated scene of the "law-bringer" coming to end that  mystery, once and for all, and also a "community" ritualizing against this!”

Anne and I talked about the ways that impulse towards law-bringing gets internalized. The internal conflict between anarchist notions and the law. I talked about the latter impulse arising in myself precisely when I fear the group or community might in fact be lacking in "ways to deal with inherent tensions which arise." Thinking too about how poetry communities do and don't carry on a tradition. Which tradition? Whose? Rituals and memory, but also ruptures, losses, gaps.

I feel confused trying to think simultaneously about what I’ll keep calling this law-bringing impulse as it gets internalized inside individuals and groups, alongside the law in the case of 21 Grand and Novella Carpenter, the law that comes, always, to defend the interests of commercial development. The demise of 21 Grand is a familiar story, of artists moving into inexpensive, sometimes neglected urban spaces, and then comes the restaurants and bars and boutiques. For a lot of years the money didn’t seem to stick in Oakland, or rather, it stayed put in a few places, in the big houses in the hills, in retail districts near the Berkeley border. It’s sticking now in some places it didn’t before, notably downtown. All around 416 25th St.: Temescal to the left, Uptown to the right.

It’s Sunday now, I can’t figure out how to end this post, it’s been over a week since I started trying to think it, a week during which my job ate up all the time, I had a difficult interaction with my neighbor, and overnight an animal dug up the thyme my friend just planted in what used to be the dirt and trash patch behind the house where I live, where the theater collective used to build their sets, a space slowly being transformed into something else. In between, all these other things happened. In my mind they’re touching, pushing up against each other in ways I can’t figure out. I’m thinking of the benefit I attended for MISSSEY, an organization that poet Lara Durback volunteers with. The law again. Which so often victimizes sexually exploited youth, especially the poor, especially poor youth of color. Thinking how the law that comes in and says you need a permit to grow your own food is the same law that charges 11, 12, 13 and 14 year olds, bought and sold in the commercial sex trade, with prostitution. Thinking of the precarious and vital advocacy work MISSSEY does in the gaps between service agencies and the law. Thinking of the conversation I had with a friend who wants to open a children’s theater/educational program in Oakland, and about TheatreFIRST, how Oakland’s one professional theater company has been, like 21 Grand, forced to move spaces umpteen times since it began in 1993 with a goal of presenting international works. Which means, I guess, that without realizing it I have been thinking about the East Bay Community Foundation, an organization that supports both MISSSEY and TheatreFIRST. So now I'm thinking too about The Revolution will Not be Funded.

Flashing on and off again, between things, the orange, yellow and green stripes of a piece of art that Lauren Levin and I almost started a bidding war over at the MISSSEY benefit, at the top it said, “I HOPE FOR,” the middle a wash of illegible text in watercolor, and at the bottom “EVERYONE.”

Readers here will know by now that one of my obsessions is the representation of the 1930s in the 1950s. I suppose you could say I collect these bits of (usually politicized) retrospectives. At right is an oil-and-charcoal painting by Robert Motherwell about the Spanish Civil War - done in 1958-60. Look over at my 1960 blog for more.

Marvin Malone's magazine is back

Christa Malone, Marvin Malone's daughter, has taken up the cause of the Wormwood Review. She's created a new web site which features, among many other things, tributes to Marvin's editorship. My 1960 blog, a while back, took a look at Wormwood's founding in 1960.

Some months ago I read Eleanor Cook's Reader’s Guide to Wallace Stevens (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. xiv, 354. $24.95 paperback). New readers of Stevens must own this book, the ideal guide for starting out into the sometimes abstractly allusive, sometimes philosophically argumentative, sometimes indirectly referential verse of this essential American modernist.

Most of the poems are annotated here, presented in order of publication, book by book through Stevens’s career; a readable index of title directs you, alternatively, by the poem. Cook’s succinct summaries and annotations are confidently expert. If you are reading “Prelude to Objects” and come across the reference there to the S. S. Normandie, you will know from Cook that it was a famous French transatlantic passenger liner (136). Of course, even an inexperienced Googler would have that annotation in a quarter of a minute. In the same poem, if coming upon the “Ideas of Order”-like phrase “foamed from the sea” you take “foamed,” as in the idiom “foamed up,” to mean arising sea-like out of the sea, you could proceed through the verse satisfactorily. But having Cook’s guide by your side, you would also learn that this is certainly a reference to Aphrodite, whose name, etymologically, means “born of the foam” (136). You are still left with the problem of reconciling such a mythological idiom with Stevens’s famous “guerilla I,” the poem’s stealthy and aggressive subjectivity, but with Cook’s help you are several steps further along than you would otherwise be.

Long admired for her attention to syntactical word-play, Cook has a fine way here of describing meter as an aspect of form. This one sentence on section 1 of “Peter Quince at the Clavier” does the critical work of many another commentator’s full page: “Tetrameter tercets with occasional rhyme, a clavier interrupted by bass violins playing pizzicati” (74). A masterfully wrought eight-word sentence on the first three stanzas of “The Idea of Order at Key West”—“Their argument is tight, their rhythm is ocean-like” (94)—again precisely describes the rhetoric and form but also presents the poem’s main tension between rationally organized content of human experience and oceanic feelings about the power of the muse.

The book is littered with many other marvelous condensations. When the “firecat” of “Earthy Anecdote” is said to be found in “[m]inor Indian legends tell[ing] of a cougar or mountain lion who brings either helpful or destructive fire”—and we learn that while recent tellings use the very term “firecat” “but the relevant Smithsonian historical volumes on the American Indian do not record the word” (31)—we easily imagine hours of research done in the service of this modest qualification. It’s a valuable nuance. If Stevens did invent the word “firecat” for this bit of modernist ethnography, we know he nonetheless got his folklore just right.

These are specific advantages resulting from the guidebook format, its special constraints, which Professor Cook has mastered. The book has more conventional virtues as well—such as the finest introductory close reading of “The Man with the Blue Guitar” that has been published. This reviewer happens to agree with Cook’s assessment that “Blue Guitar” is “a pivotal, crucial series, richer than it may appear” (113), a work “packed with thought as Stevens positioned himself for the last quarter of his life” (17). Doubters of such a claim will still need to reckon with this assessment.

Evenhandedness—-giving each poem its proportionate due—-is impossible in such a project, and readers must anticipate that some significant poems are too briefly annotated. “Imago,” arguably an important poem, is presented here in 4 ½ lines, while “How Now, O, Brightener…,” a lesser work commended by few, is given four times the space. In the former poem, the line “Who can pick up the weight of Britain” is said to echo Job 38 and to refer to postwar Marshall Plan reconstruction, but nothing about Stevens’ use of imago, the Freudian concept of representations presented by the unconscious to the ego. Is there a psychoanalytic aspect to postwar language used to “say to the French here is France again”? Yes, surely. Readers will have to piece together that connection on their own.

Even when, as rarely is the case, the interpretive commentary fails to engage the poem sufficiently, or seems imbalanced, Eleanor Cook’s Reader’s Guide is otherwise an excellent companion to the more traditional bibliography prepared by J. M. Edelstein many years ago. Readers who work straight through the book—to be sure, it was designed to enable other approaches—will receive the best first lesson in the whole arc of Stevens’s work. Although this book would seem to provide an atomized, poem-by-poem experience, its reader's greatest reward is the sense he or she gets of the overall shape of the Stevensean project.