Commentaries

Rakosi at 99 (it's a long way looking back)

Many poets who lived to old age have registered in verse what it must be like to see or sense an "I" so old, so long ago, so outmoded, that such a version of the self is unrecognizable, other. Stevens' "Long and Sluggish Lines" is just one of several poems he wrote in his seventies in this vein. But Stevens died at a merely 76. Carl Rakosi died at 100. To celebrate his 99th birthday, we at the Writers House invited him to read. He wasn't able to make the trip from San Francisco so we set up a live audiocast. It was great fun and Carl was in wonderful form. The event was noted by a web page and recordings of the whole conversation as well as the individual poems Carl read are available. Carl that night read "In What Sense I Am I," which to me captures more precisely and interestingly than any other poem I know what it's like to outlive oneself, "a minor observer / as in a dream." The text of the poem is here and the recording of Carl reading that one poem is here. That night in 2002 Tom Devaney gave a good introduction to the occasion and to his friend Carl.

"Carl Rakosi's determined honesty and reductive rhetoric with its ungainsayable plainsong," Bob Creeley wrote, "have made a measure for all conduct of words in the attempt to find an active poetry in the fact of lives without power."

I, the people

In her 1986 book Parts of a Wedding, Alice Notley published a poem I especially admire, called "I the People." (It was republished in Grave of Light: New & Selected Poems, 1970-2005.) The text of the poem is here. When Notley came to the Writers House to read in the fall of '06, she read this poem and we have a recording of it (mp3). In its sense of political-is-personal, it is very much like John Ashbery's poem, "The One Thing That Can Save America": a lyrical digressive response, in its very meandering and promotion of urban specificity, to the fundamental democratic idea of the people. Somewhat predictably the poem turns the phrase "we, the people" every which way so that the republic seems to depend on modest and shifting as opposed to hyper-confident presumptuous first-person statements. Notley's "I" is one that becomes "we" by way of (actual) love experience, an actual sense of place. There are broad but only momentarily hints of satire here, e.g. at/against Frost's "The Gift Outright," with its notion of what America "was" and "would become." Notley: "I the people / to the things that are were & come to be. / We were once what we know when we / make love...."

PoemTalk starts talkin'

I am the host of a new podcast series called "PoemTalk." At least we think it'll be a new series. On August 2, we recorded a pilot show and now friends and colleagues are having a listen. Once we've heard their responses, we'll decide whether we will go ahead. The plan is to produce a new show every two weeks, beginning in September. In each show I introduce and play a PENNsound recording of one poem, and then I, with three guest poet-critics, discuss it, its influences and manifestations, for about 30 minutes. For the pilot show I chose William Carlos Williams' 1930s poem "Between Walls" and here is a link to the podcast. Have a listen and let me know what you think.

you bet your garden

The great garden guy, Mike McGrath, the Philadelphia-based host of NPR's You Bet Your Garden, was a guest reader-performed on Live at the Writers House, our monthly radio program aired on XPN 88.5 FM. First Mike spoke a little about his work and his writing (listen to it here). Then he read a piece called "The Little Willow That Could" (also recorded and available here). He was part of our 58th show.

origins of Speakeasy

"Speakeasy" is the name given to the twice-monthly open-mic performance night at the Kelly Writers House. It's had a remarkable run for a decade. Courtney Zoffness, who now teaches creative writing at CPCW, was then an undergrad and was among Speakeasy's founders. As he was gathering information for the piece he's writing about Speakeasy, Eric Karlan received this account from Courtney:

Speakeasy started in the fall of 1997 (my sophomore year). I'd taken an English 10 creative writing class with instructor Rebekah Grossman the previous spring, and she emailed my friend Emily Cohen and I to see if we wanted to get involved in this new under-construction venue called the Writers House. I came up with the cheeky (annoying?) slogan "poetry, prose, and anything goes" and drew that sketchy mic-man as our "symbol." We recruited fellow classmate (and Wharton patron) Adam Kaufman to help with marketing, etc. Our first semester, we held the bi-weekly event in the basement of "Chats," a cafeteria-style, windowless space across the walk (currently home to a Starbucks, I believe?). We chalked up Locust Walk with big arrows, put flyer-tents on all the Chats tables and plastered all the telephone polls on campus. Alas, our attendees consisted mostly of our friends and roommates and a sprinkling of suspicious onlookers. It was only when we plugged into the now-officially-built Kelly Writers House that we acquired the resources and support we needed to grow and thrive.

For us, back then, Speakeasy was a way to connect to the writing community on our own terms. It was student-run -- which, I think, seemed less intimidating to burgeoning creative types. They weren't being graded. They weren't being judged. In fact, with Al's blessing, we even compiled submissions from regular participants and published a "Speakeasy Anthology." (Do they still do that? They should!)

Now that I'm a bit older, and a bit more settled into a regular writing life, I know that having a creative community is INVALUABLE to a pursuit that can feel overwhelming and intimidating and even isolating. It's why I went to graduate school (twice) for creative writing. It's why I loved going to Bread Loaf. It's why I joined a writers group in Brooklyn. And it's why -- though I may not have been able to articulate it then -- I felt disproportionately attached to the Speakeasy experience and the Writers House at large.

In October 2001 an episode of "Speakeasy" was recorded after it was webcast live. You can see and hear that recording here. For his Notes from the Green Couch series, Eric Karlan has written about the history and impact of Speakeasy.