Commentaries - September 2013

During the 2009 conference of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Julia Bloch and Michelle Taransky organized the annual off-site poetry reading. The reading took two hours and 36 minutes and an audio recording was made; for the past several years, this long recording has been available on PennSound’s “MLA Offsite Readings” page. Now PennSound staff editor Anna Zalokostas has segmented the entire recording and we are now able to present the recording of each reader, as follows:

  1. introduction (1:34): MP3
  2. Matthew Landis (2:56): MP3
  3. Rodrigo Toscano (4:14): MP3
  4. Carlos Soto Roman (2:32): MP3
  5. Kim Gek Lin Short (4:51): MP3
  6. Jacob Russell (2:10): MP3
  7. Angel Hogan (2:37): MP3
  8. Ish Klein (3:45): MP3
  9. Gregory Laynor (3:01): MP3
  10. Nava EtShalom (3:50): MP3
  11. Ryan Eckes (1:16): MP3
  12. Sueyeun Juliette Lee (1:52): MP3
  13. David Larsen (2:56): MP3
  14. Norma Cole (3:37): MP3
  15. Rod Smith (3:13): MP3
  16. Frank Sherlock (1:55): MP3
  17. CA Conrad (3:21): MP3
  18. Aldon Nielsen (2:20): MP3
  19. Suzanne Heyd (5:13): MP3
  20. Emily Abendroth (3:06): MP3
  21. Laura Moriarty (3:47): MP3
  22. Evie Shockley (1:50): MP3
  23. Pattie McCarthy (2:23): MP3
  24. Ron Silliman (2:10): MP3
  25. Thomas Devaney (2:37): MP3
  26. Rachel Blau DuPlessis (2:28): MP3
  27. Tyrone Williams (3:31): MP3
  28. Jenn McCreary (2:43): MP3
  29. Carla Harryman (3:09): MP3
  30. Kate Lilley (2:44): MP3
  31. Steve Dolph (1:57): MP3
  32. Chris McCreary (2:21): MP3
  33. Jennifer Scappettone (3:20): MP3
  34. Lisa Howe (3:45): MP3
  35. Bill Howe (1:32): MP3
  36. Charles Cantalupo (3:24): MP3
  37. Julie Phillips Brown (1:58): MP3
  38. Norman Finkelstein (2:57): MP3
  39. Mel Nichols (2:39) MP3
  40. Aaron Kunin (3:05): MP3
  41. Jamie Townsend (1:46): MP3
  42. Michael S. Hennessey (3:18): MP3
  43. Chris Carrier (2:43): MP3
  44. Eric Selland (2:59): MP3
  45. Barrett Watten (7:08): MP3
  46. James Shea (2:08): MP3
  47. Sandra Lim (1:52): MP3
  48. Mecca Sullivan (2:25): MP3
  49. Danny Snelson (3:29): MP3
  50. Michelle Taransky (2:00): MP3
  51. Herman Beavers (4:05): MP3
  52. Adrian Khactu (2:26): MP3
  53. Julia Bloch (0:53): MP3

Originally posted June 8, 2009 on the blogger version of Poems and Poetics

In a conversation the other day with David Antin, the name of Seymour Faust came up, as it often does for us.  In the distant days when we were all students at City College in New York, Faust was among our few poet companions – a friendship & close association that lasted till some time around 1960, when he & I broke off for personal reasons that now seem trivial in retrospect.  He was certainly present at the time that Antin and I founded Hawk’s Well Press in 1958 & published his Lonely Quarry as the first of a small number of books that I was to continue to publish over the next several years.  David kept up some contact, now broken off, but as far as I can remember, I saw Sy only once after that, some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s.  

I was aware however of his later appearance in Cid Corman’s Origin & in Ron Silliman’s Tottels Miscellany (both in the 1970s), but if there was other publication over the intervening years, it went completely past me.  It was only in 2004 or 2005 that Silliman cited him on his blog as one of a number of disappeared poets from the 1960s, describing him (wrongly) as “a Brooklyn poet” (he was actually like me from the Bronx) & suggesting (also wrongly) that “Cid [Corman] and I may have been the only people ever to publish him.”  There was also some talk about his self-imposed isolation after being scorned by fellow poets as “a hawk on Vietnam,” but I have a feeling that there was far less to that than meets the eye.

More to the point though was Silliman’s short account of Faust’s actual value as a poet: “The mix between rhetoric & vocabulary here is unique to my experience, yet I don’t believe he ever published a book. … What I have of his …  is an echo I can hear in my head to this day, utterly articulate, completely unlike anything – or anyone – else. I’ll never be able to thank [him] enough for all I was given.”  To which I can only add my assent & republish as a personal tribute & recollection  the following two poems as they appeared in Tottels Miscellany.          


old books
words polished for a hundred years
and put away a thousand
stories polished for a thousand years
odyssey, logia of jesus,, and of kung
how you have been true to us, and false 

in this century
how you have been false
how the airplanes have made liars of you
the nuclear piles in the pressure hulls
electromagnetic waves
how you are undercut by the spectroheliograph
the cardiogram
guidance systems and gunnery
how advertising puts you down
and the unions and the powerful
the whole radio audience knows better than him
whom you mislead

how your paradoxes pall
your parables and fables
your modular stories
how your symbols fail
techniques of dialog
points of view

better anything than you
better to strain your eyes on protoplasm
as it flows indistinctly in bright or darkened field
under the lenses of the turret
in the utter silence of concentration
at your cosmic distance
close at hand
to trace the rockflows of the maria
the traces of devastation that radiate
from the circular maria
or film the solar prominences in hydrogen light 

better the doctors lifetime
the lifetime of the assyriologist
the searcher of beach terraces of the north
at Denbigh or Krusenstern
or Onion Portage
disinterring flints and cores
already seeing man as something over
or one at work
on the improbable future
the designer of high speed high altitude aircraft
the meteorologist
tracer of clouds
or at opposite poles
the observer at Byrd Station


 One real rose
in a glass vase
a cup of concave petals
filled level
to the vermillion ruffle of its surface
the stem makes angles in the water column
the long teardrop shaped

 * * *

from the Cairo geniza
from the past
800 different poems
like the stones of a temple scattered
you sing of fields and flocks
the fields clothed in sheep and blades in dew
the farmers and the herdsmans world
as in those days they did
you were
you do emerge
from the empty spaces
the blank areas of the past
what shall we learn
what was going on
what shall we know of you 

* * *

 it changes lane
on the interstate
citybound on the right
southbound therefore
over 60
lights on
on its new suspension
reflections on the chrome wch frames its lights
or traveling
across its curving windshield glass
as good
and no better
as it has to be
as is desirable lets say
(all things considered)
in such things

 * * *

names of categories
thin orange and fine orange wares
a series going back to crude beginnings
diversified diachronically
vessels with rattles in their feet
or figures moulded on them
with whistles and pictures
or portrait vases
or vessels for the interment of a child 

* * *

or read Su
or anyone
and translated thru the mists
see the past emerge
the trees and plants take place
on the space of earth
the rounded boulders
the office-holder
riding thru snow
is seen by the suffering of the villagers
he offers what he can 

From METAPHOR FOR A DILEMMA                                                                                 
in The Lovely Quarry, 1958

I am a Scythian and although I have never regretted my share in the destruction of Harappa, the conquest of Memphis or the leveling of Boghazöy, I am forced to admit that my tastes place me in bewildering circumstances, none of which I could have foreseen, because of their early attractiveness or their blinding power.  In my single combats, for example, I am given to boasting.  I am seldom outprided, but it is embarrassing to be confronted by those with an equal or greater talent in the same vein as my own.  In this manner I achieved a reputation for cowardice that I never really earned, but still find it hard to be modest, especially in those cases where my reputation is most in doubt.                                     

My taste in language is barbaric and my feeling for art almost African.  It was a long time before I understood the value of gold, silver, platinum, bronze, copper and cast-iron.  I like I-beams, the worked arches in the circulation room of the 42nd Street Library, the grillwork of the 161st Street Bridge and the wrought trusses and angle-irons to be seen in Grand Central Station.                                                                                                         
I do not know how I became a dilettante of this kind.  I am an ordinary voluptuary, with a taste for power.  My first iron works were axe-blades, mirrors, pins, chariot-trappings and small abstract devices for battle-standards.                                                 

Lately I have discovered in myself a tendency to read.
. . . . . . .

Monday (September 16) is the actual publication date for Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, co-edited with Heriberto Yépez & published by Black Widow Press in Boston.  The design of the book follows the layout of my anthologies such as Poems for the MillenniumTechnicians of the Sacred, which makes it different in format from other “readers” & a way of treating the range of works (poetry, prose, performance, plays, poetics, visual, verbal, & vocal, translations & variations) that I’ve been into over the last fifty years, even more. 

            I would also be curious to hear if anyone out there has an interest in reviewing or in setting up readings, particularly in the northeast and midwest, for this coming spring, when other engagements will be bringing me that way.  I’m very happy anyway that this is happening as I move forward, as always, on the next big book.

The official announcement from Black Widow Press reads as follows:

Fifty years in the making, Eye of Witness is the culminating work of Jerome Rothenberg's lifelong project, to construct a grand collage (R. Duncan) that brings together a wide range of poems and other language works (verbal, visual and vocal; on the page and in performance; as poem and as poetics) and in the process speaks to and of a larger humanity with which and to which the poet acts as conduit and witness. In his own words in summation: "Two final points: first, my pursuit of a kind of transcultural or global poetics: a poetry rooted in its place but capable of crossing borders and languages to become a virtual omni - poetics. And secondly that that move in its later stages explores a multivocal poetry of witness -- the ubiquity of an I-as-speaking-subject that we all share -- personal and transpersonal at once."

"For us, [Jerome Rothenberg] played (and plays) the role Picasso and Braque did for the painters, and Leiris and Bataille later for the French poets: opening the sparkling world that comes when you crack open literature and see the primal gestures of oral energy and sudden imagery from which it all surges. Kabbalah, cave painting, Iroquois legend, Navajo chant, Hasidic tales, Central Asian epic, German avant-garde, immigrant histories -- he summoned us to attend to the deep literature of which the 'literary' is only a sheen … He is a great figure, who stands above and beyond the schools and tendentiousnesses of poetics; he has given us, in his poetry, criticism, translation, anthologies, a body of work that exhibits what I suddenly realize is an ethical purity, a touchstone for the genuine."
-Robert Kelly

"Jerome Rothenberg has done as much as anyone over the past half century to shake up received ideas of what poems ought to be like, by demonstrating or suggesting an endless profusion of other pathways, other shapes, other stances, other contexts: as if to say that it is always possible to begin over, to invent new rules for the most ancient of games, not once but over and over. now to the rest of his poetry -- a body of work still underrated, in part because his extraordinary work as editor and translator may at times have overshadowed it -- is added this bonus: half a century of work… spilling out in profusion from… all the previous poetry and revealing multiple layers of exploration and invention. [His] is the book of a life, and the book of an era."
-Geoffrey O'Brien

By Eric Rettberg

Ara Shirinyan. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.
Ara Shirinyan. Photo by Harold Abramowitz.

Eric Rettberg told me a few months ago about his interest in Ara Shirinyan, and I asked him if he would write briefly about it for this commentary. He agreed, and here is what he has to say. Eric is currently Edgar F. Shannon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Virginia.

The procedure Ara Shirinyan used to write Your Country is Great (2008), in which he went through an alphabetical list of countries, Googled “[country] is great,” and wrote poems from the results, ensures that the book repeats relentlessly. Seemingly empty declarations of greatness abound, from “aaww lol belgium is great =)” (29) to “Finland is great because / Finland is great” (103), and so too do reports of the great recreational activities available in the countries of the world. “The beaches are the bomb” in Costa Rica (70), just as Bulgaria is great “if you want young drunk fun in the sun” and “Cyprus is great for sun and beaches” (49, 78).

As she travels around Shirinyan’s Googled world, the reader will repeatedly encounter great food (“The ripe papaya in Belize / is great with crushed ice” [32]), great romantic possibilities (“The Dominican Republic is great alternative / to Colombia / for finding wife” [85]), great nature (“The faunistic diversity of Ethopia is great. / This is mainly due to the variation in climate,. topography / and vegetation” [99]), and above all, great enthusiasm: “My quality of life in Guernsey is great. / I am happy with my quality of life now. / Really quite happy with my quality of life” [122]). Amidst all the excitement, of course, the inquisitive traveling reader will also find great problems: “Cambodia is great place / and mines areeeee / mostly along the border” (51).

Kenneth Goldsmith observes in his blurb that such repetition “gives us an early glimpse at the deadening effects of globalization on language,” but the language of Your Country is Great does not feel deadened to me. No deadened language could make me laugh as much as Shirinyan’s poems do, and once I find out why Afghanistan is great, I’m compelled to turn the page to find out why Albania is great, and then why Algeria is great, and so on through the entire book. I read on to find the next slightly changed repetition, the next mundane observation, the next instance of outrageous cultural insensitivity, the next enthusiastic proclamation of greatness, and especially the next laugh.

Lest my laughter seem a perverse aberration, Marjorie Perloff confirms in her blurb that Your Country is Great is “hilarious and sardonic,” full of “much wit and aplomb,” and in a blog post, Anne Boyer, who is inclined to read the book as “a tragedy” to be read with “great heavy sadness,” grudgingly admits, “I suppose it might be funny, but mostly funny like someone falling.”[1]

If Your Country is Great provokes laughter, then, it also provokes guilt, the guilt of not quite knowing at whom or what we’re laughing when we laugh at these poems. On some level, we’re laughing at the writers who would be so stupid and banal as to post on the Internet such statements as “BERMUDA is GREAT. / Robbie Williams is so hot. / So is Johnny Depp / and Orlando Bloom” (34). On a broader, more academically suspicious level, we’re laughing at Goldsmith’s global “puddle of platitudes,” at the sad condition of language in modern life. Whether our laughter comes from a feeling of superiority or a feeling of suspicion, we draw a sharp line between us knowing laughers and the benighted objects of our laughter. We sophisticated readers of the avant-garde know more than them, or we’re morally superior to them, or we’re more capable of enjoying worthwhile culture than them. To borrow the memorable terminology of Goldsmith’s recent essay on “Being Dumb,” we, the “smart dumb,” laugh knowingly at the “dumb dumb.”[2]

The laughter Shirinyan’s book provokes, though, refuses such easy distinctions. At some point I stop judging the earnest delight of tourists, residents, and expatriates, and my laughter at them infectiously slips into laughter with them. My judgment of the Internet writer who can only say “Azerbaijan is great! I like it! / thanks for sharing :smile:” (20) fades as I realize that my knowledge of Azerbaijan goes no deeper than hers. My academic impulse to scrupulously deconstruct the problematic and exoticizing words of tourists falls flat as I encounter—and laugh at—Internet utterances that everybody knows nobody should ever say:

After being in a Kava Ceremony
to welcome me to the island,
a cannibal guy danced for us.

Fiji is great, (102)

Before Shirinyan played these outlandish lines for laughs, the person who originally wrote them did. Googling to find their source points to a photographic travelogue from 2003, in which the original author was already treating his cannibal observation as a joke, was already trafficking in language he knew to be offensive.[3] When Shirinyan redeploys these lines in his poetry, he might seem to shift the butt of the joke from the “cannibal guy” to the thoughtless tourist who would call him a cannibal guy, but the supposedly thoughtless tourist was already in on the joke, even before Shirinyan plagiarized his language. When I laugh at these lines, I don’t just laugh at their offensiveness but also make myself complicit in it, because it was this other man’s joke first.

That original cultural encounter and the mediated layers of reports through which I experience it reveal genuinely troubling mechanisms of tourism and globalization, but by presenting the lines as a potential object of my laughter, Shirinyan complicates the idea that I can tidily separate myself from them in order to cast my academic suspicion on them. Your Country is Great does not simply parade a series of halfwits before its readers for mockery; as often, Shirinyan asks his readers to join those halfwits, to feel the earnestness of their enthusiasm, to acknowledge that even when we know more about another place than they do, we still don’t know very much. The blank pages that accompany the names of countries that returned no Google results remind us that even in our hyper-digital, thoroughly searchable world, sophisticated readers, avant-garde poets, and even vaunted Google still experience the world incompletely.

When he makes his readers laugh, Shirinyan does not ask them to feel superior to the internet writers whose words comprise his book, but instead to identify with them, not to laugh knowingly at those who are ignorant and ridiculous in the face of a vast and complex world but to acknowledge that they are too.





The Real Through Line symposium, Melbourne, April 2013

In an English translation of a French transcription of a lecture delivered in 1973, Jacques Lacan proposes his ground-changing formulation: ‘Mathematization alone reaches a real’. For Lacan, what this means is that what we thought was fantasy and what we thought was knowledge are now entwined. Reality is not what we thought it was. Or rather, it is whatever we think it is. The one thing it isn’t, however, is real. This is, in lots of different ways, very good news for a one-day symposium that proposes to bring together ‘leading scholars and practitioners interested in the poetry of the real world.’ As Lacan remarked, ‘Man believes he creates – he believes, believes, believes, he creates, creates, creates.’ The symposium, held in April 2013, was the latest in a series of scholarly collaborations from Jessica Wilkinson (RMIT) and Ali Alizadeh (Monash). The proceedings of the symposium will soon appear in Axon, an online journal published out of the University of Canberra.

The opening address, given by Louis Armand, the multi-accomplished editor of Vlak magazine and lecturer in the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University, is destined for a forthcoming volume called The Organ Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the avant-garde. Armand’s paper, subtitled ‘Revolutionary poetics or the poetics of revolution’, draws on the 1993 film, Gorilla Bathes at Noon, by Yugoslav director, Dusan Makavejev. The film was conceived, fittingly enough, as a ficto-documentary but, as Armand writes, was soon ‘overtaken by historical events’. The question posed by the paper is akin to that posited by Makavejev in Hole in the Soul (1994) – how can we employ the mechanisms of an ultimately fictional medium to get at the real? 

In their November 2012 “Realpoetik Manifesto” Wilkinson and Alizadeh argued that poetry has been ‘disregarded as a valid vehicle for the exploration of real world experience’. They called for ‘an end to the segregation of poetry from and by the authoritative discourse of prose’. I always thought, following Agamben, that it was poetry that energetically sought to differentiate itself from prose. One of the real strengths of the symposium, then, turned out to be the strenuous and sometimes rash-inducing disagreements it provoked. In their manifesto the convenors declared that ‘The Realpoetik celebrates the power of the poetic form to realize and enact factual content.’ To this end, they convened a number of poets who do this in intriguing and inventive ways.

Kate Middleton investigated American poet Dan Beachy-Quick’s use of literary and historical documents to show how fact and fiction work together to allow, as she writes, ‘imaginative entry into … sources and critical engagement with … source materials.’ Middleton’s forthcoming book-length poem, Ephemeral Waters, draws on citation and collage to document the course of the Colorado River ‘from headwaters to delta’. Middleton’s project addresses what must be the key irony of the symposium, namely, as Heraclitus might have had it, the role of the free-flowing imaginary in the attempted apprehension of the real. 

The regionally-based poet, Patrick Jones, takes this idea just about as far as it can go with Artist as Family. Jones lives with his wife and two sons on a quarter-acre permaculture plot in the Victorian bush. To arrive at the symposium he and his family left home five days beforehand, trekking through Jaara country in celebration of Jones’ recently completed PhD manuscript “Walking for Food: Regaining Permapoesis”. Jones’ philosophy is one of permanent making and I’ve written about it in more detail in Wandering through the Universal Archive. His presentation took the form of a letter to a fellow writer and environmentalist and asked whether writing and ecopoetics were somehow incommensurable – ‘Can writing produce intimacy and immediacy, or is it always … pushing us away from life’?

For some of the poets assembled at the symposium the real is the real of sexual difference. Poet and academic Justin Clemens ‘personally can’t think of anything less real than poetry.’ Brisbane-based poet, Felicity Plunkett provided what was for me the most physically affecting and possibly, therefore, the most instructive account of the real through line. Broadly speaking, our apprehension of reality so-called is moderated by what we are told is real, what we want to be real and what somehow we know is actually real. Much of Plunkett’s poetry tarries with the slipperiness of these divisions. One of my favourite poems from her collection Vanishing Point is “Discipline”:

Oh stupid girl! How much of this could be
misprision, missed points, mise-en-scene?
But missing, with its sighs and crumbs, drags on.

For the poet, knowing that the real is potentially a waking dream doesn’t change anything. In her paper on haunting and clairvoyance in Plath, Plunkett stages a collision between the dreaming body and the real life of the institution. As a PhD researcher visiting the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, Plunkett was unable to find some pages from one of Plath’s drafts. That night

I had a dream a black telephone was ringing on the bedside table. I answered it to hear the clear, trans-Atlantic accented voice of Plath’s last interview, telling me to look in the yellow folder. 

Plunkett’s account of what happened when she returned to the library the next day caused a collective shiver amongst the audience and sent a singular chill traveling from my scalp down to my ankles. Even if you could tell reality from fiction, would the body speak any differently?

The self-described ‘histrionic’ presentation on “Aspects of Realism and its problems” by Melbourne-based poetry legend PiO (π.O) reminded me that I too used to sit in the library in primary school and ponder the word ‘Non-fiction’. Its use seemed illogical to me and consequently made it more difficult for me to remember which side of the game it was meant to nominate. I couldn’t work out why ‘they’ would use what I thought of – albeit in my conceptually-based seven-year old terminology – as a negation to categorise books that were to do with the here and now. If anything was elsewhere, in my experience, it was fiction. I can’t say I’m currently any the wiser as to which of these terms would be more adequate as a description of lived experience. Which is no doubt part of the reason I’m sitting here now writing about a symposium devoted to the extension of the terms and their usage.