Commentaries - June 2013

Not the building of a megaphone for bardic harmonics, nor the people’s microphone, but a dance of many feet...

John Kinsella (left) and Drew Milne

I'm pleased to present here a statement by John Kinsella and Drew Milne on their forthcoming book-length poem-project, Reactor Red Shoes. The work is being published September, 2013 by Veer: . Below the statement is an excerpt from the poem, reproduced from the typescript.

John Kinsella & Drew Milne, Reactor Red Shoes: A Statement

Here, where two writers sidle up into becoming a third party — a third-party poetics in play and with shared accountability — there is not so much a duet of voices, as a textile of give and take, warp and weft. It could be called an implied dialogue, a process, or a sharing of the soap-box, but dialogue suggests dialectic, or a legislative grind through questions and answers. Such stains of argument are entertained and found wanting here. Not for Kinsella and Milne the liberal idols of dialogue and the performance chatter of radio discussion, nor even the collage of monologues by rival Socratics. This collaborative poem shares more than argument or dialogue, building across seemingly necessary interruptions into an on-going dance.

Reactor Red Shoes is a work of poetry developed out of shared conversations that began in the 1990s, and which were brought into writing during Kinsella’s Judith E. Wilson Fellowship in Cambridge, where Milne is the Judith E. Wilson Lecturer in Drama and Poetry. For Kinsella, this was an act of presence; and for Milne, an act of social being. The writing-together took around eighteen months, from around September 2011 to February 2013. Working through Red-Green and Marxist-Anarchist difference engines, the poets shared a process of verbal and textual conversation.

Recognising that collaboration can mask individual agency, somehow privileging a more collective consciousness, the poets articulated resistances to shared personal, collective and socio-political problems. Nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons, uranium mines and the machinery for enriching uranium, to take one such problem, are omnipresent across the planet and too often silently accepted as givens. The technology of radioactivity extends into the very texts created to resist it. Protest becomes paradoxical rather than successful, a commentary rather than an act of change. This becomes the impasse Reactor Red Shoes seeks to find a way through: how might the poem generate meaningful differences in the process of reacting to the shifts and disguises of collective threats and damages?

In reading poetry that offers itself as the work of a collaborative authorship, the modern sense of private property cannot quite resist wanting to own the differences and alienate them into private arts and copyrights. Scientific papers offer themselves as collectively written proceedings. Almost all the performing arts are collaboratively performed. From the simplest architecture to the writing of our laws, from the building of spirit to the logic of capital itself, the relations of production are social. And yet, the curse of solitary production is wished upon anything called to the barre of poetry, as if even Homer, or song itself, were ever the working out of one mind and not the sociality of a people making it into writing. The fairy story of the red shoes — of dancing our way brightly to death, of treading on the loaves and politics of bread over wastes of annihilation, of the cinematic diegesis of the Powell and Pressburger film of dance, creative implosion, manipulation and cultural tyranny — is more than metaphor or symbol, becoming rather an allegory of production and its political resistances.

To write, moreover, is to enter into the language of others, and almost all forms of writing, even those that treasure hermetic privations, work out towards marks of otherness, hoping to find a collective script or public dance of language. To write as though anything written could be understood as something written by a third party — a third-party made up in the discovery of a friendship and solidarity — is at first surprising and then like a new kind of third-party politics, not least in putting to some kind of music the very differences between socialism and anarchism, or between punk and ballet, that turn out to be shared recognitions. Leaning out from the tracks of familiar treads, then, there are ventriloquised imaginings stumbling over the pulse of shared record collections, films, demonstrations and political vigils. So it is with this choreography, at any rate. Amid the limits of the available dance floor, there is a measure of tonal sympathy that refuses to sacrifice the ethos of the dancer who prefers not to stay in time.

More than one writer, then, sharing a shifting platform, rather than staging two voices constrained to become either private or public. And writing with a sense of choric plurals, a choreographic making in which a shared voicing is not about building a megaphone for bardic harmonics or the people’s microphone, but a dance of many feet, a detachment of red shoes. The dancers cannot stop to look too closely at the give and take of the floor, though they are forever pointing to the cracks evident in the grounds on which we would be standing, if we were not dancing. This dance is ghost-written too by other shifts against the accommodations of present pressures and crimson enchantments. Life rushes by, but the red shoes go on, plunging headlong into the tracks of the engulfing ecopolitical disaster melting all before our damaged eyes and ears.

Dean Drummond talking about Partch

Dean Drummond narrates this German documentary on Harry Partch:

An earlier BBC documentary on Partch

Chinas Comidas: Live and studio recordings 1977–80

Chinas Comidas
Chinas Comidas, copyright 2006 Exquisite Corpse Records

One the real perks of living in Austin is the live music, and in April, I was fortunate enough to see Patti Smith in concert— and even though she is 66 years old now, she was spectacular. After a two hour set (including an encore), I was floored that the original punk-poet-goddess could still embody so much of the artistic anti-establishment energy almost forty years after she first came on the scene. But it also made me reflect on the long relationship between poetry and punk music, and what their intertwined history in the 1970's could mean.

This image of William Burroughs, which comes from the back pages of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, always stood out to me as the best example of the intersection of the literary and punk. Burroughs' work combines a number of avant-garde compositional techniques (Surrealist automatic writing and Dadaist cut-ups, for example) with extravagant yet realistic drug use, a strong anti-authoritarian stance, the perspectives of outsiders (in the vein of Jean Genet, homosexuals and thieves dominate Burroughs' worlds), and a straightforward “tell it like it is” view of the world—all of which are critical nodes of the music and culture of the early days of punk in the 1970's. LIFE IS A KILLER sums up the simultaneous despair and triumph not only of Burroughs' own Naked Lunch, but punk albums such as Richard Hell's Blank Generation.

And, of course, William Burroughs served as a mentor to many of the young punk musicians in New York, and the intersections between poetry and punk were not just artistic, but personal. Allen Ginsberg has his poem, “Punk Rock You're My Big Crybaby,” and a humorous story about meeting Patti Smith, and serves as a testament between their crossed paths. The poets and the musicians were moving in similar circles in lower Manhattan, and the resonances are still felt today, as the recently-defunct Bowery Poetry Club described its location as being in the shadow of the former location of CBGB's.

So why meditate on punk music? Because one of the real treasures in PennSound is the full album recording of Chinas Comidas: Live and Studio Recordings, 1977-1980, which was published by Exquisite Corpse Records in 2006. This album consists of 19 songs by the little-known Seattle punk band consisting of Rich Riggins, Brock Wheaton, Mark Wheaton, Dag Mitskog, and the titular vocalist Chinas Comidas—a pseudonym of the poet Cynthia Genser, who has also published since the 80's as Cynthia Kraman. Kraman's fourth collection of poems, The Touch, was published in 2009.

Chinas Comidas combines some of the best sounds of hard/loud/fast punk music (it's obvious why they opened for The Ramones and toured with The Dead Kennedys) with the intense poetic lyricism of Patti Smith. For example, here are the printed lyrics for the opening song on the album, "Isadora":

The song eschews the more simple and repetitive song writing of "Blitzkrieg Bop" for a more complex contruction of setting and dialogue that reflects the urban despair of some of Burroughs' work. The anguish of waiting for the lover's return is textured with cocaine, modern commerce through cigarette branding, hopes of international travel, and murder—the great pulp crime of 20th century metropolitan intrigue. Kraman considered the album its own sort of complete publication as well—one that intersects with literary culture. As she says in the liner notes:

I want the CD to have a sort of sound trajectory, regardless of when or how it was recorded. —it's more of a semiosis of language and sound — moving from one sort of drama rhythmically and texturally to another that offsets it, enhances it — I was always big on order. So it's the many moods and sounds of Chinas Comidas, interwoven. For me Isadora is very personal and intimate...then we move into dance rhythms with Sweeter, then keep the dance thing but in darker tones with Criminal Cop, goes back to traditional dance, goes back to the long poetic riffs of Isadora with Johnny Guitar and then bang, the whole heavy Peasant/Slave chorus. So that's one cycle for me. Then we go back to pogoing with Big Ideas, back to the long poetry riff with Pride and Joy and For the Rich completes another cycle with another kick ass song, That's sort of Part I; Protection Racket/Stroke/Further Lines for Pretty Boy Floyd/Cowboys is Part II which for me is all Wild West youth sex taking acid that whole thing. Part III is my poetry work with Rich, Rich's musical work with the band, and then a sort of coda with Dag singing the Sonics classic The Witch. then wrapping it up with B side of the first single Lover/Lover, and then a little dance tune that celebrates the fan as a closer: Snaps.

My hope is that this underappreciated album will give you something to rock out to over the week. There are a number of complete albums on PennSound that originally were published on LP/CD. The most famous of these is Allen Ginsberg singing The Songs of Innocence and Experience, which was profiled by PoemTalk in episode number 4. I will feature more of these full albums over the course of the summer, so stay tuned.

from chloroform: an aesthetics of critical writing, eds. Nick Lawrence & Alisa Messer(1997): annotated bibliographies of UB small press publications:annotated bibliographies of UB small press publications:

Selected Bibliography of Buffalo Publications: 1960-1996 compiled by Kristin Prevallet: pdf

•A History of Poetics at Buffalo: 1960-1990 a timeline from Cynthia Kimball & Taylor Brady: pdf

from my essay "A Blow Is Like an Instrument" in Attack of the Difficult Poems


At the SUNY-Buffalo, I was the director of the Poetics Program, co-founded in 1991 by Robert Creeley (our first director), Susan Howe, Raymond Federman, Dennis Tedlock, and myself.

I came to Buffalo as Butler Chair visiting professor in the Fall 1989; Susan Howe had been Butler chair the year before. I had scant teaching experience. I first taught in the Winter quarter of 1987 at the University of California – San Diego’s writing program. In the summer of 1988, I taught my first literature class at Queens College. I also had taught a class in Princeton’s Creative Writing Program for two semesters (Spring 1989 and Spring 1990). I was appointed David Gray Professor of Poetry and Letters in Fall 1990 (Creeley had been the first Gray Chair, but had been promoted to the Capen Chair a couple of years earlier). We hired Susan Howe and she came back to Buffalo in the Fall of 1991. In Buffalo that first year, Bob and I cooked up the idea for the Poetics Program, though Bob had wanted to secede from the English department and move to the then under construction Center for the Arts. I argued that we should use the administrative support of the English degree and have our students receive the more generic English Ph.D. In 2003, I was appointed Donald T. Regan Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. The program has its roots in the formation of the English Department at Buffalo in the early 1960s by Albert Cook. Cook had the idea that you could hire literary artists to teach not creative writing but literature classes, and in particular literature classes in a Ph.D. program. It was with this in mind that he hired Creeley, Charles Olson, and others; it marked a decisively other path from far more prevalent graduate (usually M.A. and M.F.A.) “creative writing” programs that emerged at the same time.


By formalizing this concept in the early 90s, shortly after Howe and I came to UB, we were suggesting an alternative model for poets teaching in graduate, but also undergraduate, programs. The Poetics faculty teaches in the English Department’s doctoral program, supervising orals and directing scholarly/critical dissertations, even if our license to this is more poetic than formal. A frequent question I get from students applying to the program is whether they can write a creative dissertation. I always do a double take: “I hope it will be creative, but it can’t be a collection of poems or a novel.” For the fact is that Poetics students have the same requirements as all other graduate students and are admitted by the same departmental committee. And while we encourage active questioning of the conventions of critical and scholarly writing, we remain committed to the practice of poetics as something distinct from, even though intersecting with, the practice of poetry. The implications of this perspective are perhaps more pragmatic, not to say programmatic, than theoretical: while the “creative writing” approach at universities often debunks the significance of critical reflection, sometimes pitting creativity against conceptual thinking, the Poetics Program insists that scholarship, historical research, and critical writing are at the core of graduate education. 

This is not to say that a Ph.D. program is appropriate for most poets. I tend to discourage people who ask my advise from pursuing this degree at any institution, partly to ensure that they have considered the limitations of the academic environment in terms of artistic freedom, compensation, and future employment.  But if this is the choice they make, it is likely because they want to be teachers, editors, and writers and where their writing is as likely to be criticism or poetics as poetry.

The Poetics Program is fully integrated into the English Department, presenting seminars and sponsoring events within that context, even while marking such offerings as our own. We also provide modest funding to students to publish magazines and books (print and electronic) as well as to organize their own poetry readings, talks series, and conferences: over the past decade, this has resulted in dozens of magazines, scores of books, and numerous visitors, not to mention our web site, the Electronic Poetry Center, created by Loss Pequeño Glazier (

While many doctoral programs in English expect students to choose between being poets and scholars, we suggest that the one activity may enhance the other, for those so inclined. The poets, as I’ve suggested, do their poetry and their editing on their own: it informs their graduate work but is never the explicit content of it. And, equally significant, the Poetics graduate students form a vital community among themselves, where their shared interest in criticism and scholarship, poetry writing, and teaching  make for an active bond. As it turns out, this mix seems to produce Ph.D.s who are eager and well qualified to teach literature as well as writing.

Poetics Program (historical/archival)
The Poetics List
Historical set of Wednesday at 4 posters and calendars (1990-2005)
1991 First Poetics Program flier: pdf
New Coast Conference flier (1993) : jpg
A Haven for Poet-Scholars: Poetry Program in Buffalo Blends Creativity and Criticism" by Liz McMillen in Chronicle of Higher Education, July 28, 1995: pdf
1999 Poetics Program flier / intro
"Letter from Buffalo" by Paul Quinn, TLS, June 30, 2000: pdf
A Web Site Grows New Poems, Sometimes Right Before Readers' Eyes [on the EPC], by Zoe Ingalls, Chronicle of Higher Education,July 25, 2000: pdf

Syllabi from the first decade of the program:
Charles Bernstein
Loss Pequeño Glazier
Susan Howe
Dennis Tedlock

For Hiromi Ito

(1) When the Buddha walks. his feet are so close to the ground that there is not even a hair’s space between his soles & the earth;

(2) the imprint of a wheel appears on the soles of the Buddha’s feet;

(3) the Buddha’s fingers are exceptionally long & slender;

(4) the Buddha’s heels are broad, round & smooth;

(5) the Buddha has a web-like membrane between his fingers & toes;

(6) the skin of the Buddha’s hands & feet is soft & smooth;

(7) the Buddha’s feet have unusually high insteps;

(8) the Buddha’s calves are rounded & firm like those of a stag;

(9) exceptionally long arms,when standing, the Buddha’s hands reach his knees;

(10) the Buddha’s genitals are hidden inside the body;

(11) the Buddha’s body height is equal to his armspread, considered to give a classically proportioned body;

(12) the Buddha’s body hair grows in an upward direction;

(13) one hair grows from each pore on the Buddha’s skin;

(14) the Buddha’s body gleams with a golden light;

(15) the Buddha emits a halo of light which frames his body & extends outward about three metres;

(16) the Buddha’s skin is extremely smooth;

(17) seven regions of the Buddha's two feet, shoulders, & neck are full & rounded;

(18) the sides of the Buddha’s body under the Buddha’s arms are full, not hollow as on an ordinary person;

(19) the upper part of the Buddha's body is majestic, like a lion;

(20) the BuddhaÆs posture is firm & perfectly erect;

(21) the Buddha’s shoulders are full & rounded;

(22) the Buddha has forty teeth, as white as snow;

(23) the Buddha’s teeth are straight, without gaps, & equal in size;

(24) the Buddha also has 4 canine teeth which are larger, whiter, & sharper than the rest;

(25) the Buddha’s cheeks are full & firm like those of a lion;

(26) the Buddha's saliva imparts a delicious taste to everything he eats;

(27) the Buddha’s tongue is long & flexible, when extended it reaches to the Buddha’s hairline;

(28) the Buddha’s voice is pure, strong & deep, has an exceptional ability to communicate to the listener, & can be heard from a long distance;

(29) the pupils of the Buddha’s eyes are a deep blue color, like the blue lotus flower;

(30) the Buddha’s eyelashes are long & regular;

(31) the Buddha has a protuberance on the top of his head, representing wisdom;

(32) the Buddha has a light emitting clockwise curls of hair on his forehead.

NOTE. The lead to the poem came, like much else, from conversations with Hiromi Ito, herself a major figure in contemporary Japanese poetry & for some years a neighbor & close friend in southern California. I had recently written & published a series of poems, The Treasures of Dunhuang, many of which were my own takes on images of the Buddha from the great painted caves of Dunhuang in western China. My first sighting of those was in an exhibit of that name at the Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, in 1996, reenforced by a visit to Dunhuang in 2002. What struck me then was the surprising twist given to images that we thought of as familiar – much like images of Jesus when one sees them in out-of-the-way regions of the Christian world. I had long had in mind, & more so recently, perceptions about the nature of poetry enunciated by poets like Novalis – “The art of estranging in a given way, making a subject strange and yet familiar and alluring, this is romantic poetics” – & referential too, I thought, to how we come at poetry today.

It was Hiromi’s sense of other images, other places, though, that led me to the Daichidoron - the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra, discourses on the-Great Wisdom Scriptures, attributed to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 a.d.). The 32 lines, as they appear here, are a found poem that in some sense completes the work for me. The following from The Treasures of Dunhuang is a response of my own to similar promptings.

Performance Version

a faceless buddha


a black buddha


buddhas with silver mustaches
& chin hairs


three transvestite buddhas


buddha with heads
around his head –
dozens of whirling heads


2000 buddhas


crouching buddha –
slits for eyes –
looks sleepy


a buddha with a dozen faces
& a thousand hands with eyes


buddha holds a fern –
he wears a scabbard
& the scabbard grows a hand


rays stream from buddha’s eyes
– or tears


eyes wide in terror
open anguished mouth with fangs
he holds a dish with flaming ryes
but haloed

can this be buddha too?


thin buddha
starving buddha

sitting hand to chin
& smiling