Commentaries

Praise for PoemTalk

Geekadelphia

Over at Geekadelphia, Lillian Dunn has written appreciatively about PoemTalk. Here is the link to the whole article, and here is the relevant text:

Poets, with all their feathery pens and solitude, might not strike you as a particularly tech-savvy group. But Al Filreis, poet-in-chief at UPenn’s Kelly Writers House, just laughed out loud at me when I suggested as such. What about Flarf – a whole new genre Google search poems? Or “spoetry” – sonnets crafted from spam e-mails’ fabulous nonsequiturs?

podcast logoFilreis himself homebrews the successful “PoemTalk” podcast in the garret of the Writers House on UPenn’s Campus, convening 3 local and visiting poets to talk about a poem by a 4th. In PoemTalk, along with some local poetry Facebook groups and CA Conrad’s loopy, beautiful Jupiter 88, a “video-journal of contemporary poetry,” Philly poets are using tech to pop the lid off an often-hermetic art form.

Filreis says he chose the podcast format because it lets poetry do some new tricks. First, he digs “the radical equivalency of iTunes;” poetry’s right up there with Lady Gaga and the NBC Nightly News. And listening on an iPod “is more intimate than listening to the radio;” you choose it, you download it, and then you get to sit down with your new friends, just you and the poets alone, in your own world of sound, the words rattling in your chest and clutched in your coat pocket.

Despite its slick editing and newfangled delivery, the PoemTalk podcast itself lets you get closer to poems by very old-school means. Every month, Filreis gets together 3 poets – living in Philly or just passing through – to talk about a 4th poet’s work, selected from Penn’s archives. (The show is also a peek into the vast audio archives of PennSound, UPenn’s collection of poets reading their own pieces, basically spanning the history of sound recording.)

Then the poets just take the poem apart, joking, telling stories, letting it fold back in on itself. Even if poetry usually leaves you feeling lost or bored, the sense of adventure in these conversations is infectious. Discoveries happen. It’s actually fun to be lost with 3 articulate, funny people, each carrying their own hand-drawn map. The podcast is not super-academic, and it’s always less than half an hour.

The new PoemTalk, the best way to bring 4 poets along with you on a treadmill and not get any weird looks, is up at poemtalkatkwh.blogspot.com, featuring Tracie Morris, Josephine Park, and Herman Beavers talking about Etheridge Knight.

John Ashbery performs Wallace Stevens

In October of 1989, John Ashbery went to St. John's the Divine Cathedral in New York to be part of the induction of Wallace Stevens at the Poets' Corner. There was a vespers service and Ashbery read six sections of Stevens's "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven." Imagine that--that poem read at a vespers service! Anyway, I certainly don't know of another recording of Ashbery performing Stevens. Stevens was a fairly bad reader of his own poems. Ashbery is deemed by many to be an indifferent reader of his poems. (I don't agree, but understand the point.) But here, reading Stevens, Ashbery is marvelous. Here is a 7-minute recording of sections 3, 5, 12, 17, 18 and 30 of the Stevens poem that comes closest to real serial writing (seriality at the level of the section, anyway).

Interview with Charles Alexander about letterpress publishing

Charles Alexander working at Chax PressAt left you see Charles Alexander and colleagues working on a publication of Chax Press, which Charles has been directing for the past 27 years. Charles was at the Writers House today, to give a reading and be part of a recording of an episode of PoemTalk. We took a few minutes to talk about letterpresses and other alternative presses--and some important twentieth-century figures in letterpress publishing. This discussion is episode #20 in the PennSound Podcast series.

Loss in reverse (PoemTalk #40)

Susan Schultz's "Dementia Blog"

Susan Schultz and her mother

LISTEN TO THE SHOW

Norman Fischer’s super-coherent overview of the book called Dementia Blog by Susan Schultz is a good way to begin: “Following the odd form of the blog, which is written forward in time but read backwards, it charts the fragmented disorienting progression (if this is the word) of her mother's dementia. Schultz sees through her family's personal tragedy to the profound social and philosophical implications of the unraveling of sense and soul: a deranged nation, so unmoored from coherence that it is unable to feel the difference between political rhetoric and the destructiveness of war.”

For our 40th episode of PoemTalk, we gathered Jamie-Lee Josselyn, Michelle Taransky and Leonard Schwartz and discussed two relatively early blog entries in this work.

Leonard responds to the matter of Schultz’s discovery of dementia as poetic form and he quotes Schultz on this point: “Reverse Stein. Not insistence but repetition.” “Stein,” says Leonard, “who insists it’s not repetition, that there is no repetition” but Schultz reverses that, based on the neurological reality facing her. Is this repeal of Stein a “big breakthrough”? asks Al - to which Leonard replies that it’s not really a critique of Stein, because finally “this book honors a kind of indeterminacy as ethics.”

Jamie-Lee argues that for Schultz memory is community and the state of being without memory is isolation. In the post-Holocaust sense, we won’t understand, and cannot successfully convey, what we write down about the trauma we witness. Schultz nonetheless chooses testimony a mode, and blog as form, not so much because she believes in the efficacy of bearing witness but because she wants to be part of this community and to stave off remoteness.

Michelle follows this by wondering if we can understand such writing as lyric – as embodying the qualities of the lyric poem. How is Schultz “somehow both expressing something personal – relating it to herself, her mother turning into not-her-mother – and at the same time there’s the very public [function, so that] someone else with a mother with dementia might read this and relate. Thus there’s somehow that ability to both be lyrical and to be poethical at the same time.” Michaelle isn’t certain that the blog form is what makes that convergence possible, but she suspects it might be.

Al had already written about the book on his own blog, where he concluded, perhaps a little too cutely, that “[t]he illness is the medium” – and then pondered the project’s novelistic aspects:

As you read this work you go backwards into the daughter's recent past to a point just when the mother begins to lose a grasp on her past. Ironically, conventional novelistic progression is repurposed for the digital mode that would normally undermine it. As we move toward the end (the beginning: Susan's return home from a vacation abroad to deal with her mother's first crises), we arrive at wholeness. Not Pip realizing his realistic place in London, nor Emma right-sizing the world into appropriate family pairings, nor even Clarissa Dalloway's party bringing the whole fractured cast together, but a happy-ever-after that is a moment in time just before the decline begins. In the end are things as they were.

The book can be purchased through Small Press Distribution. It was published by Singing Horse Press in 2008. PennSound’s Susan Schultz page is here; she recorded nine sections, or blog entries, specifically for PennSound – including, of course, the two we discuss. For his radio show, “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” produced in the studios of KAOS-FM at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and made available through PennSound, Leonard Schwartz has interviewed Schultz several times. During the 180th show, he spoke with her about Dementia Blog and that interview is very much worth hearing along with this PoemTalk.

[A few days later: we're glad to see that already this discussion and of course the book itself are being recommended in a letter to the editor of Slate in response to an article about the experience of living with someone suffering from dementia.]

PoemTalk’s 40th episode was directed and engineered once again by James LaMarre and edited as always by Steve McLaughlin. Next time on PoemTalk: Richard Sieburth, Kaplan Harris and Rachel Blau DuPlessis talk with Al about the third canto of Ezra Pound. Stay tuned for that one.

Digital Humanities

I'm pleased that on nicomachus.net, a digital humanities blog, I'm described today as a "tireless purveyor of recorded, digitized, and archived poetry readings."