Outside & Subterranean Poems, a Mini-Anthology in Progress (61): Harry Smith, “American Folk Music: a Collage”

[In the final stages of preparing Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Assemblage of Outside & Subterranean Poetry with John Bloomberg-Rissman, I’m continuing to post excerpts on Poems and Poetics.  Publication of the full volume is scheduled later this year from Black Widow Press as the de facto fifth installment of Poems for the Millennium.  Earlier excerpts continue to be available in these spaces, most of them prior to final editing & recomposition. (J.R.)]



Prison Cell Blues

Blind Lemon Jefferson 

tired of sleeping in lonesome cell, wouldn’t been here if not for nell.  awake at night, can’t eat bite, used to be rider, won’t treat me right.  red eyed “captain” squabbling fore: mad dog sargent won’t knock off! asked governor knock off time way i’m treated lose mind. wrote governor, turn me loose, no answer, no use.  hate turn over find rider gone, how i’m on.



See That My Grave Is Kept Clean

Blind Lemon Jefferson

favor I ask you, see my grave kept green.  long lane, no end, bear away with silver chain. two white horses in line, take me to burying ground. heart stopped, hands cold.  you heard coffin sound? poor boy in ground. dig grave with silver spade, lead down with silver chain. you heard church bell? poor boy’s dead and gone.



Way Down That Old Plank Road

Uncle Dave Macon

rather in richmond with hail and rain, than georgia wearing ball and chain.  went mobile, get gravel train, next i knew: ball and chain. what makes treat so, wear ball, chain, ankle sore. nashville Pretty, mempshis beauty, see pretty girls – chattanooga. (fare you well i’m gone].  build scaffold on mountain, see girl riding by. wife died friday, saturday buried – sunday, my courting day. monday – married. [kill yourself]. 18 pounds meat a week, whisky to sell, can young man stay home, girls look so well, won’t get drunk no more on plank road.



Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line

Uncle Dave Macon

in tennessee, lease come, work in coal mine against free labor, made ‘em rise and shine. monday morning march them to lone rock looking in that mine (hole), ‘captain’ say “beter get pole”.  beans halfdone, bread not so well, meat burnt up, coffee black as heck, but tastes good. boss, hard man; if don’t get done, carry you to stockade, on the floor you fall, next time have pole. buddy roll down line, yonder comes my darling, coming down line.



SOURCE: Liner notes from Harry Smith, editor, American Folk Music, handbook, Folkways Records & Service Corp., 1952.

A nearly outsider figure & an avant-garde filmmaker in his own right, Harry Smith (1923-1991) worked as a collector & assembler of a wide range of works & artifacts outside the accepted boundaries of art & literature: Seminole textiles, Ukrainian easter eggs, paper airplanes, & an unprecedented collection of commercially recorded folk music & country blues from the 1920s & 1930s.  It was from the last of these that he drew materials for his multi-volume Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952), a gathering with reverberations into a range of new musics & poetries, both popular & avantgardist, over the next several decades.  The genius of the work was its exploration of a vernacular poetics – a hard core of realism & an unflinching presentation of experiences & ways of life that a softer lyricism had too often obscured.  In the process & through an accompanying handbook of numbered inclusions & fragmented, elliptical synopses, Smith both brought this vision to surface & created a dark & uncompromising assemblage of his own.

            Writes Stephen Fredman in summary of Smith’s accomplishment therein:  “As assemblagist and editor, providing not only an introduction to the collection but also a comic headline summary for each song, Smith undermines the authority of musicological and folklorist conventions by taking on some of the functions of an author. This role is especially evident in the way he orders the songs by number rather than by any known method of classification. Eschewing generic, sub-regional, and, especially, racial classifications (which were ubiquitous not only when the recordings were made but also when Smith edited his anthology), his juxtaposition of the songs proceeds by an occult, serial logic based upon stylistic features or subject matter.”  (S. Fredman, “Assemblage as Archaeology & History,” in Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art, Stanford University Press, 2010)


[For more on Smith’s contribution see the posting on September 11, 2011: “Harry Smith, Charles Reznikoff, & the Art of Outsider Assemblage.”]

In audio practice IX

Nate Mackey tapes

Nathaniel Mackey, NYC, 2000; photo by Chris Funkhouser
Nathaniel Mackey, NYC, 2000; photo by Chris Funkhouser

Interlacing different threads of my audio practice together, I want to address another writer (poet, critic, editor, professor, radio programmer) whose company has served as a great inspiration, and whose work soars in range and quality.

Nathaniel Mackey entered my consciousness by way of some of his students, specifically poet-musicians Rich West and Eric Curkendall, who I met after I moved to Santa Cruz in 1988. They raved about his work, and hipped me to his radio program, Tanganyika Strut. I scored a copy of Bedouin Hornbook, which knocked me out on all registers, and their professor’s urbane perspective seemed eons away from our basically off-grid subterranean ontology. Before we met, I’d occasionally see Mackey downtown, walking along Front Street to the office supply store — and his gait and demeanor always struck me as princely (his ubiquitous kufi helped contribute to this vibe I’m sure). After we produced the We Magazine 14 CD issue (1991) I felt confident enough to introduce myself at a reading he hosted for Geoffrey O’Brien at UCSC, and then read his interview with Kamau Brathwaite in a newly published issue Hambone that furthered my understanding of what is called for in contemporary poetics. We crossed paths at Naropa that summer and talked about getting together in California. The more I read his work, the more questions arose, so the first time I went to his house I proposed to interview him. Versions of our 1991 conversation, which I transcribed from cassette, have been published many times over (Poetry Flash, Callaloo, Poetry Criticism, Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews). Later that fall, Andrew Schelling, who knew of my interest in Mackey, asked me to transcribe the cassette of Mackey’s Naropa talk. Though the audio quality was poor I did so, and Mackey transformed the transcript into his essay “Cante Moro” (Disembodied Poetics: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School, U New Mexico P, 1994). Interviews I conducted with Cecil Taylor and Amiri Baraka, transcribed from cassette, are published in Hambone (1995, forthcoming 2014).

A recording of the first time I heard Mackey read, at a 1992 “Poets for Peace” group reading in Santa Cruz, was released on We Magazine xv cassette. It’s hard to convey the enormity of it now, but at this time a few of us became obsessed with Mackey’s work, jokingly calling ourselves Followers of the Mystic Horn Society (referring to the musical ensemble his novels often revolve around). Since we had our own improvisationally-oriented band with  conceptual dramas/foibles, lived collectively, were moved by the writing (and the music within), and were eager to know more, our reverence was sensible. It wasn’t only the writing, but also the radio show through which our horizons were expanding immensely. Mackey was superb on the radio (I have several dozen of his early 90s programs on cassette, all wonderful; some playlists are archived here). Sometimes Stephen Cope and I had contests listening to the program, to see who could name the artist and other details first. Mackey was quite tolerant, and even generous to us. For instance, if there was a song he referred to in one of his books that we wanted to hear (e.g., Frank Wright’s “China” in Djbot Baghostus’s Run), he’d find a way to play it on the show. At the same time, he was admirably discerning. In 1992, he took us up on our offer to record some poems at our studio (which turned out to be the “Zar” section of School of Udhra; see PennSound), which we recorded straight to DAT—and then became the only guest to ever request a second, “do-over”, session after the first session didn’t “sing” as it could. So we did it again, with better results. Mackey always declined our invitations to participate in our backyard poetry reading series, and to be videotaped for our VHS issue, partly because his daughter Naima was an infant I’m sure, but also because its rawness wasn’t exactly his cup of tea.

Fortunately, after moving to Albany, I saw Mackey on several occasions because he somewhat regularly visited the area. In Fall 1993 I attended his “public discussion” with Brathwaite at Poet’s House in New York City. Their dialog was amiable, peripatetic, and extremely informative—particularly with regard to Brathwaite’s concept of tidalectics and his Sycorax video style—so again, I transcribed the cassette. The original transcript went through multiple iterations, finally becoming through much effort by Brathwaite a fascinating, expansive “video style” book titled conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey (We Press & XCP, 1999).

conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey, We Press & XCP, 1999

As a grad student, I recorded another interview (filed under “for research purposes only” by Mackey) and several events, including his April 1994 seminar and reading in Albany, a recitation from which (a passage from ATET A.D.) appears on the Kenning 12 compact disc. I also caught readings on DAT in Woodstock (1993), Hoboken (The New Freedoms, 1994), and Buffalo (Robert Duncan Festival, 1996), all of which are (or will soon be) available at PennSound (Woodstock, Albany seminar, and Buffalo are presently up on the SoundBox archive). A version of “Slipped Quadrant”, excerpted from the “Zar” session (above) was included as part of a multimedia composition on The Little Magazine, Vol. 21 CD-ROM. I was always glad for his presence during this period, including his candid and helpful advice with regard to tribulations that arise due to academic bureaucracy and politics, “just yes them to death”. In response to my interest in computing and multimedia, he pointed out that one can be in the process of collaborating with many elements even as a singular writer, and (circa 1994) said he needed more evidence of “breath and bone” in digital technology before committing attention to it. A few months later the marvelous compact disc he did with Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh, STRICK: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25, was released, full of breath and bone.

I haven’t had a camera, notebook, and/or recorder activated every time I’ve been with Nate over the years since, but often I have—capturing the magnificence of his work whenever I can. Among these occasions is an interesting 2002 Modern Language Association Convention session featuring Mackey in conversation with Charles Bernstein, Juliana Spahr, Steve McCaffery, Roland Greene that I documented on minidisc. As a complement to this commentary I am concurrently releasing a reading I documented on MiniDV at Cue Art Foundation in New York City on 12 March 2004, with an introduction by William Corbett; the exhibition of Thaddeus Mosley’s sculptures in the gallery was curated by Mackey. His discriminate sensibility towards art and artifice persists.  

The most recent recording I made of Mackey, a blazing 2008 set he did with Henry Grimes at Cue, is an intense blast (see photos). However, his voice is not prominent in the mix; unfortunately, that's how I caught it. In all, it's a good document of the event, but in the eagle-eyed musical poet’s view, “the voice/bass mix…isn't good. I should've had a mike. The way I read, I should always have a mike! But especially so when in the company of a musical instrument”. Because “it's not the most acoustically clear example” of his work with musicians it remains offline, without qualm, and, of course, in the memory of those who attended.

Geomantic Riposte: From the Poplars

Cecily Nicholson is the administrator of Gallery Gachet and has worked with women of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver, BC since 2000. Her work, both creative and social, engages conditions of displacement, class, and gender violence. Nicholson is the author of Triage and From the Poplars, and is a contributor to Anamnesia: UnforgettingIn a Jacket2 interview with Jules Boykoff, Nicholson spoke about her first book Triage:

I realize that the book has become a tangible point of entry for me to level critique, roundly, that includes myself.  I think that my experiences and mobility are pretty limited. For the text to be grounded it necessarily contains my everyday life, including paid work and organizing.  I prefer poetry that documents, witnesses, reveals structure, talks back and raises questions in ways that are not closed or irrelevant to my friends, family, allies. I’ve learned to reference cultural production with a specific interest in its process and public, and not simply the object/outcome. I relate best to work being produced under hard conditions and in active solidarity with directly impacted communities. If my poetry is relevant to the work of organizing then that’s a fortunate convergence. 

Nicholson’s latest book From the Poplars, traces multiple layers of historical memory, the site-specific poetic sediment on an uninhabited island in New Westminster, BC, an unmarked, twenty-seven and a half acres of land held as government property that is known as Poplar Island. The traditional territory of the Qayqayt First Nation, it was later to be quarantine for indigenous smallpox victims, and then clear-cut for shipbuilding during the First World War. Reminiscent, at least in spirit if not form, of Gary Snyder's Turtle Island, what is most unique and refreshing about Nicholson’s book is the amount of lyrical complexity she maintains throughout her activist solidarity, in which her meticulous reportage allows language itself to reveal the cruel ironies and paradoxes of our place in the world, even at a place we pass every day in transit without ever really seeing it.

From the Poplars by Cecily Nicholson (Talonbooks, 2014, Page 26)


sweat to wools loading cargo

cannery crates of sturgeon and roe


packing it in at the company’s dock

garden at homes


moorage, a snag in the water

before plastic


           bridges, small-dot passages

centre-span arch under construction


devastated, may day, temporary stores

after the fire




pictured at the centre of the image: the Onward


Geomantic Riposte:  Company Romance*


with all the means in his power so that the C_’s enter-

prises  should not fail the C_ exhorted them to devote

themselves to activities more profitable than such fruit-

less war parties      the C_ found it necessary for fear of

eventual failure the C_ was preoccupied with Canadian

penetration did the C_ succeed in imposing its tutelage

over those territories        the double plan that resulted

in the C_’s creation      the C_ was concerned       the C_

did not contemplate remaining entirely immobile     in

this fragmentation of [the C_’s] forces  the C_’s officers

refused to believe in the existence of horses     the C_’s

adversaries the C_ was to escape for a while       the C_

itself hampered     the C_ resumed possession    the C_

gradually turned away forbidden access to the C_’s the

C_ set out to stabilize its positions in the interior     the

C_’s tardy entry that in size equalled the C_’s enterprises

were inspired by the idea of Protestant crusade     the C_

in fact never completely overcame its feeling of mistrust

toward the native peoples contested  openly the legality

of the charter held by the C_ and the right the C_ invoked

to sole occupation of the territories the C_ does not seem

to have taken account of difficulties service in the interior



* courtesy of The Métis in the Canadian West, Volume I

by Marcel Giraud (translated by George Woodcock)

Geomantic Riposte: Prairie Kaddish

Isa Milman is a poet and visual artist who lives in Victoria, BC. Born a displaced person in Germany in 1949, she grew up in the United States and came to Canada in 1975. She is the author of Between the DoorpostsPrairie Kaddish, and Something Small to Carry Home, and each of her books has won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry.

In an interview, Tracy Hamon summarized Milman’s book Prairie Kaddish:

Isa Milman’s Prairie Kaddish is a creative documentation and voyage into the historical lives of Jewish settlers. What began at a graveyard near Lipton, Saskatchewan, unfolds as a narrative exploration of identity and the human condition. The confluence of immigrants alongside residing First Nations Peoples resonates through the lens of the contemporary visitor. The montage of various traditions overlaps into a book that works as a house to contain the memories, and as prayer to honour those that built and rebuilt their lives while struggling to survive before and after the prairies.

Milman explores the concepts of language and “native” pronunciation in her poem “Driving Through Bienfait Saskatchewan.”

Prairie Kaddish by Isa Milman (Coteau Books, 2008, Page 88)


Why not consider the fate of beans? Does the prairie care

what names are pinned to its mounds and curves and waters?

Imports all, the beans and their planters, supplanters of the

mixed up and metissaged.


French nouns and Cree verbs bounced in this wind,

in Michif, a hybrid language – like Yiddish, I’m told.


The sounds of Michif blown away, as the Métis were blown,

by the whistle of locomotives and babble of their cargoes –

Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Germans, Romanians,

Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Finns, Swedes, Dutch,

French and English. Yiddish, too, stepped off the trains, to claim

a mound, a curve, a little water. A comfort, these familiar sounds,

in such strange surroundings?


Geomantic Riposte:  Scherzo


When the French horn of warning blew, rows of Conexus/Mosaic

employees had already cleared out of Maestro Sawa’s retirement

treat of Mahler’s Fifth, not unlike the Viennese at hearing a Waltz

giving way to rustic Ländler   A citizen of the symphony that is the

world, I have very little to claim, only a dying language and a few

intimate mutterings in Yiddish and for generations we have been

roving from place to place only to set down rails and quickly off-

load a train of thought before moving on but everyone complains

about Native pronunciation of my own subject for kaddish that

lacks brand recognition            I would trade you these enchanted

beans for your house and say we’re square but I’m kinda hooked

on this bright prairie sunshine and I’m anxious to put down root

vegetables of my own         it must have been much earlier when

they fled the pogroms and her name was changed to a verb in the

OED but I don’t have much to go on         erotic WWII propaganda

cartoons and antisemitic reviews of work considered too classical

and not classical enough          writing erratic heartbeat into Ninth

Back in the day

Back view of carnival performers
Notting Hill Carnival, London

A couple of years ago I had a gig as a samba drummer. There were rehearsals in derelict warehouses and a music studio in south-east London. My own choice was the second surdo drum at the audition, but they said to play another for the purposes of the exercise. Later they suggested the repinique drum. Despite my hard work and attending private drumming lessons, I was dropped from the bateria. I fought successfully to be part of the production team instead. And like all good fairy tales, I was asked to fill in for someone who hadn’t turned up on the day of the performance. The golden costume was adjusted and there I was like Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street ready to go. When we were young we were warned to act in a way that would not bring shame on the family. Often we were humiliated by others, but it was our own embarrassment that was our stick. When I was 11, my mum applied for me to go to the selective secondary school, my teachers turned up at our house unannounced to speak to my mother about her choice. They caught her with the washing hanging out. She knew why they were there, but I went to the school she chose.