Commentaries

Fifty years of Buffalo poetics readings on PennSound

We've been working on this page for a decade, but now near complete -- 150 readings and events at Buffalo, from 1963 to 2003. 

Most of the readings here are connected to two series: "Walking the Dog" programs coordinated and recorded by Robert Creeley until 1990; "Wednesdays@4 Plus" programs (1990-2003) coordinated and recorded by Charles Bernstein (working with Susan Howe, Raymond Federman, Dennis Tedlock, Robert Bertholf, and Creeley). While the Poetics Program as such didn't begin unitl Fall 1991, we include on this page readings beginning 50 years ago in Buffalo, associated with the State University of New York's English Department.

Still to come: recordings of the 20th anniversary EPC celebration (September 11-12, 2014)

Buffalo @  PennSound

Jake Marmer: Nigun poems & poetics

[Originally published in Current Musicology's recent issue on “experimental writing about music.”]

 

PREFACE

 

This set of poems grew out of my experiences of listening and finding myself inside nigunim(pl; singular nigun or nign), Chassidic chants — mystical, usually wordless songs used as accompaniment for rituals — weddings, prayers, candle-lightings — collective beckoning of transcendence. The nigun experience is fraught with what Amiri Baraka called, referring to blues, the “re/feeling” — proximity and shape of personal history of encounters with unfathomable.

            Because most of the nigunim did not have lyrics they were comprised of scat — but a somber sort of a scat: “oi-oi”, “di-dai”, “bah-bom,” etc. Musical instruments were not used to accompany them either, since most of the singing happened on the Sabbath when instruments were put away.

Rid of accompaniment, rid of lyrics, these stripped down chants were visceral and prayer-like but washed out of content and filled, instead, with implication — with attempts. At the climax of one of his talks, balancing at the edge of the cognitive void, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov reportedly said: “And even to this, too, there’s an answer. But that answer is necessarily a song.”

            These poems attempt to reimagine the sensation of locating oneself inside a nigun.

 

INTRODUCTION TO NIGUN

 

people turn into rocks

song like water

beats between them

 

BLANKET NIGUN

 

what this blanket weighs

for days, yr muscles will remember

feet land on the floor

so cold you begin to feel

a tonic sled, under another

you, under another

blanket, heavier, bigger, what

it weighs you may never

know —

the cold —

is inside the vision

as blankness, your voice

nesting, missing feathers

lifting off

you

begin

to feel

 

PAINTER'S NIGUN

On hearing Frank London’s H.W.N. 

this is a song of people painting walls

walls of a shul that doesn’t exist

paint rolls upwards

pulled by other gravities

you could celebrate a bris a yontef

air thickening with paint —

inanimate painted

with breath

breathes

as it is said:

“living words”

painting walls on the scaffolding of a drum solo

of fists banging a table which is a real table it’s really here

but the scaffolding is full of paint the scaffolding is a face

of the shul that doesn’t exist

the sound rises like an animal and walks

moving its burden

to the pit

in the shul a pit built for the chazzan

as it is said “from the depth . . . ”

this yontef commemorates what

has never happened

but the paint the paint

rolls like walls stands like sea

walls standing

mercurially

 

NIGUN AU REBOURS

 

this song is not an act but erasure

the way other songs reach into you

this one retreats,

taking with it stuff that seemed nailed to the floor

this song is cinematic in its reel

you may find yourself humming its residue

you may wonder who you’re

feeding —

through the song’s straw that ascends

to the pouting mouth

of the vanishing point

 

ROOT-NOTE NIGUN

 

this nigun is about a stick figure

and the wind over canvas

that bared it —

it’s about a two–bone

abstraction, a solitary root

note, resounding its stripped chorus

no aesthetics beyond instinct —

this nigun is about a scratch,

a typo, doodle of person — dropped

into an impressionist painting

amidst the ball of flesh and color

and it knows there must be a mistake

and mumbles all it ever knows to mumble

— “I exist” — “I exist” — “I exist” —

a note bent in and out of the question

this nigun is about a stick figure

imagining it could change its fate

by lifting its stick–figure hands

heavenward

 

CECIL'S SCARECROW NIGUN

for Anthony Coleman 

this nigun is a scarecrow

in your old clothes

it looks a little bit like you —

a no–thanks–prophecy —

the fence: scarecrow’s

stage and metalepsis

melody lint,

limp sleeves and run–on paint

everybody here forgets

what they came for —

newly unknotted,

turn

into congregants

dissipating in their coats

the nigun shuckles, rocks

alone

victorious

creaking guardian

in the field of pure color

 

AMPHIBIAN NIGUN

 

needle threads nothingness

hunks of it

transparent slices of ice

a dress

good for running up and down

the stairs

of the ancestral dream

ice quickly goes

New York

ice always does

melting ripples around your face

it’s the puddle — waltz —

for a minute you remember

there’s a world at the bottom

of your stomach

peopled with memories

sad eyes, winking —

and when you raise your head and ask for a drink

someone shows you to the ocean

and says welcome to your new life

under the water

Witness Julietta Cheung

What gets in, what gets out

The alternative space Ballroom Projects is located in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, near where I live. Once a third floor ballroom that would have hosted family banquets in this working class area, it was later colonized by punks who put on hardcore shows. You have to walk up three flights of steep steps to reach its tall, cavernous space, which is surrounded on three sides by a mezzanine built out with bedrooms. Lovely banks of tall windows face south. It’s on Archer Street, backed up against Interstate 55, which one never ceases to hear through the cold, brown brick walls. It’s now informally linked to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; students and graduates of SAIC, where I teach, run it as a live-in project space. Robert Fitterman read there this spring, with Josef Kaplan, Holly Melgard, and Joey Yearous-Algozin. I read there one night in 2012. But it wasn’t a poetry reading. I was at one of many fascinating exhibits the space has hosted over recent years. And I was reading silently to myself, page by page from a stack of 8 ½ x 11 sheets set on the floor, one stack among several, something about or repeatedly extolling “true exposure.” The piece is by Julietta Cheung. A few of us entered a central space strewn with these stacks and some custom built cushions, sat down and read, left to the periphery to mingle, and returned. Everything and everyone must have felt under surveillance. Well, I did. To get to the heart of the piece, I had to get over my own preoccupation with reading as a private, silent, and portable activity. Or so I thought, perhaps wrongly. I was still reading in isolation, and projecting that by isolating the phrase “true exposure” as not only the title but the key to the piece.

Cheung’s website introduces the piece this way:

True Exposure invites viewers to question the collective shaping of culture defining terms. In this case, the term is "innovation." First, the search term "innovation" was applied across a variety of on-line news media outlets, blogs and social networking sites. Then the search results were copied. In each set of results, "innovation" was replaced by the equally ambiguous term "true exposure." A possible lexicography around "true exposure" was further applied to replace recurring associations.

By “recurring associations,” I read both clichés and the compiled synonymies of online tractability, i.e. the way terminology is delivered unto itself via “relevance.” Sentimental deliverance, too, à la “Flarf” circa 1998-2004. Because cognates, including the verb “innovate” and the substantive “innovator,” are also substituted by the phrase “true exposure,” her texts share the occasional trait of syntactic disjunction found in a Flarfist poem. The repetition of the phrase and its indeterminate semantic value conspire to solicit reverence. What is this heavenly object, thing, reason, concept, act, or character beaming through all manner of discourse, “true exposure”?

Cheung’s statement continues, forcing an equivocation between the practices of “recent corporate brainstorming sessions and '90s Relational Art.” I love a good dialectic like this. Usually enjoy it more than I trust it. In a talk Cheung delivered at the College Art Association, the artist explains,

Few singular words reflect so well the underlying drive of modernity and modernization as "innovation": and because contemporary uses of the term have collapsed participation as an inherent practice within industry, I decided to use exhibition venues as the key space of participation in art—to contrast our value assumptions about participation in art and everyday consumption. After contemporary art’s social turn, there is the implicit assumption that works involving collaborators or facilitating viewer participation are the antidote to the commercialism of the art world and to hegemony in general. But if we have sought to blur art and the everyday in the past to challenge the status quo, it is also time we reflect on participation as it has become entrenched in both contexts.

I also love being engulfed by a semantic puzzle, especially when the dispassionate spectators surrounding me amplify its exposition. One/it is exposed to view. The closed environment of Ed Ruscha’s Chocolate Room and the infinitely relaxed ambiance of Tan Lin’s reading environment, which I discuss in a previous commentary, are replaced with a theater in the round. Reversal is the implied zenith of “innovation”; a modern Copernican revolution of convenience, now that market research, R&D, and publicity are fully integrated into our leisure routines. The semi-private exhibition space, a party, really, was the ideal setting for my initiation into this odd sort of kiosk. (Even the furniture, so to speak, makes the most of modernist design tropes.)

The phrase “true exposure” is about what gets in and what gets out, influence and emission. Though I would not want to reduce the phrase to a pun, this does have some semantic resonance with the feeling of being on view that I had at the Ballroom, being watched or looked at as I read. Think of how attention is partitioned around reading. In an environment like a library there are commons but also cubbies, claustrophobia is the obverse of faux rapport. Laptop and data phone screens are just between you and it, especially on mass transit or in a public forum, like a cafe or checkout lane. An installation is never something you can stand before, like a painting. It is never entirely visible. Even in a sculpture garden, everything crawling over, landing upon, or blocking view of a piece diverts attention. Sight lines are inherently subjective in an environment like Cheung’s. And another is embedded, the space between reader and sheet of paper, itself designed as data output. The era of the database and the index also inaugurates a certain spectatorial etiquette.

Boundless polysemy rather than ambiguity becomes the norm. The series of glossaries embedded in her texts is a catalyst for it. In photography, what gets through the lens to make “contact” and then “develops” in strict accordance, “true exposure” is exactly ambiguous, a duality, the ambidexterity of the process behind a final product. The center and periphery of the environment suggests another two-part trope. These two denotations can be paired. But others rush into view. Cheung describes its definition in banking as

a method of forecasting debt and calculating insurance and financial risks…it is [also] used to characterize the views of the landscape along hiking trails; and it also describes how real estate properties fair against climate change. The common denominator across all of these contexts is change and visibility—making "true exposure" the perception of change or the ability to see clearly in times of change.

Just as with “innovation,” a circulatory system of semio-capital, quasi-anthropological, and reappropriated counter-cultural relations works like what translators and educators call a “target language.” Cheung again: “the consultant packages the participants’ content, their labor and their production as the billable outcome,” after observing consumers in the wild, i.e. the shopping mall. The proliferation of dualities makes the dueling viewpoints illegible as such: indeterminate rather than paradoxical. Hermeneutic freedom (the right to my opinion) is resold.

I wanted to describe to you the environment in which I first encountered True Exposure. My aim was to evoke the recreational palace of the shopping mall without speaking of anything but an “alternative space.” I wanted the outcome along with its culpability: ambiguity. What Cheung calls the difference between “participation as an activity and participation as a product” could be made to rehearse the debates surrounding “participatory reading” that peaked in the twilight hours of Language Writing, those which, for instance, palpably haunt each and every contribution to The Politics of Poetic Form. But for now, I am interested in having been lured into the focus group, only to find that I was not meant to read a thoroughly aestheticized text, visually composed and even decorated (on high-output colored paper).

A stack is usually uniformly yellow, green, very Kinkos. No clip-art that I recall, but “style sheets” are in play by the compositor, who seems not to have mastered—or maybe wants to foreground—the copy machine, by letting the registration miss. The text will run off the margins, continue onto another sheet, a paragraph split between two. Maybe a page will be mostly an exaggerated space between paragraphs or other sub-sections. There are headings, footers, stripes, and other diacritical or columnar flourishes. There is a nearly caricatured self-consciousness of what Derrida, in The Truth in Painting, called the parergon—the frame between the inside and the outside of a “piece.” The rhetorical value of these cues is clear, and I have been modifying my description of them accordingly. The text is a kind of signage, and is designed as such. But as a reading experience, in the proper, feigned solitude of my predicament, I find myself enlisted to hold forth. I shudder as I realize the theatricality of being so emplaced. Everything I could pronounce would be vapid. So I mutely meander instead.

I do like to read over shoulders. I don’t read phones, don’t own one. On the train, I read books. I rest easy I’m the only one paying attention to the page, hearing that silent voice internally. The density of the prose and esotericism of the verse in my books will repulse the casual voyeur, I guess. It could intrigue them, instead. But when I’m made to stand, I watch a seated passenger play a game or scroll through status updates. I don’t want to care. It is enormously relaxing and intimate.

Artist Placement Group's "The Sculpture," installation view of Inno70 (1971), Hayward Gallery, London

This form of voyeurism is really classical irony metastasized to the theater of reading spaces that have been such a telling feature of “social practice” exhibits. I think of Claire Bishop’s discussion, in Artificial Hells, of Artist Placement Group’s actually innovative “Inno70” show. A piece entitled “The Sculpture” was in fact a working boardroom where curator, artists, and corporate representatives met to arrange collaborative “placements” of artists within their organizations. These were contractual negotiations, replete with verbal documentation in various states of revision, reference materials including civil codebooks, etc. But for the fact that “the public…were separated from the boardroom by a clear plastic curtain.” At the ballroom, it was more a matter of lighting (and in the gallery setting documented on Cheung’s website, there is not even that difference). Classical irony builds a community of knowledge by coding out the central character. Indeed I felt like everyone there knew something I couldn’t, because my exclusion was scripted. So I left the center to find that out. Every time I rose, I rose to speak with someone and not to everyone. But within the piece, I felt I’d only interrupt the others. The partition was now better than clear; it was imagined.

Postmodern and now post-Fordist theory has had a difficult time avoiding a backhanded Romanticism when it comes to poetry. Art history could be said to suffer the same fate, really. I am taken with how well Cheung’s piece anticipates the discrepancies in something like Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. On one hand, he follows an unacknowledged line extending from Julia Kristeva’s The Revolution in Poetic Language; the strangeness and palpability of language wrought by poets is less a rendering than a discovery of an essential, maternal empathy between form and content in a nonsense that might be in fact a politically viable, though for now insurrectionary, egalitarian logic. Long on Autonomist doxa, Barardi’s book is short on how semiocapitalism’s disentangling of things from statements in the age of finance entails, beside “infospheric pollution of the psychosphere,” a “poetical procedure” or “ironic act of exceeding the established meaning of words” in an “infinite game.” What I finally gathered from my interaction with True Exposure is that this is a false infinity, an unobservable plenitude but still an appreciably shaped one. Cheung’s deft and sparing design sense leaves enough of a trace to imagine a whole that is the truth of exposition. And that can’t be itself exposed to view.

This is what prosody is; it wants to live through the tautological demands it makes on sound and sense, to survive as a feature of the poem, a shape drawn on a page. The poet dreams of exposing to posterity their virtuosity, and the reader dreams of embodying it through the erotic intercession of their breath. But who is exposed, and as what? In fiscal parlance, true exposure refers to the investor’s risk, not the culpability or character of the entity in which one invests. I think of Romanticism as something of a semiotic retreat from the material brunt of industrial capitalism, and True Exposure as an advance into, even where it seems like a send up of, neoliberal finance. Lest we forget the denotation of that phrase in the world of hiking, an advance posed luxuriously alongside hilltop views, on the North Face™ of things.

Ed Baker: Three excerpts from 'Stone Girl E-Pic' with comment

[1]                                          

 

                                                to

                                                get

 

                                                                a

                                                                better

 

                                                                                view

 

                                dawn

                                arrives

 

i say what

can be said

written

in a line

 

exactly

 

 

on

her

back

 

see is

another

 

angle

 

                                she

                                asks

 

                                gives

                                only

 

                                what

                                is

                                yet

 

                                to

                                give

 

 

 

                                g i v e n

 

 

stone

sees

mind

sees

 

 

                                   face

 

                                   wide

 

                                   grins

 

 

                                                                short black hair

                                                                flick in frames

 

                                                                    nguyen

 

 

[2]

 

together

 

 

new

strokes

 

all

 

same

time

 

rhythm

 

moving

 

 

                                some

                                same

 

                                rise

 

                                into verbs

 

 

                                     circumference

 

                                     centering

 

 

                                     surround

 

 

 

hold s

flower

in a

perfect

cracked

vase

 

 

[3]

 

so

close

that

mind

 

can

touch

smell

 

taste

 

her

 

clearly

 

contradicting

 

briefly

confused

 

his

look

is

to

get

 

a

better

sense

 

of

 

her

in

heat

 

rock

before

breath

 

who

says

now

 

and

what

to

whom

 

 

leisure

allows

creation

 

 

stone

girl

 

image

 

language

 

inherent

 

[NOTE.  Ed Baker’s Stone Girl  E-Pic, a massive gathering of drawings & writings, was published by Leafe Press (Nottingham, England, and Claremont, California) in 2011.  It is as such the celebration of a poet/artist/calligrapher whose work attests to its almost outsider status, in the quasi-rawness of the print & pages in the paper version, not visible as posted here, & in the play between visual images & minimal, often scroll-like versings.   The opening citation in Conrad DiDiodato’s foreword has something to say of this: “It is important to collect these writers because, as has been the case over and over in the history of literature, the best and most innovative writing, the writing that advances the art and that in the future becomes the classic and defining work of a period, is almost always the work of outsiders.”  (John M. Bennett, Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at Ohio State University).  Or Baker himself: “... the facts that provoke (or precipitate) a poem or a piece of art that is inside or outside or simultaneously inside/outside ... the poem/piece.”  The line between inside & outside is accordingly called into question, even into doubt. (J.R.)]

Goodbye to 'Miss Otis Regrets' and all that

Scappettone's view of the rooms

Jennifer Scappettone, from Dame Quickly (Litmus Press, 2009), 101 pp., 15.00 —Superficially, Scappettone’s first book of poetry and art resembles Stephanie Young’s Picture Palace enough—texts abutted by images near the end of each book—that I once had them paired for a course that, unfortunately, never materialized. I wanted to explore and exploit the formal, and thus significant, differences between them. Whereas Young’s book has a self-consciously “Valley girl”-speak feel to it, its references largely, though not exclusively, pop culture (including film stills of indie-queen actress Parker Posey), Scappettone’s book, starting from the (Karl) Marx reference in its title to the Acker-esque flourish of its last line (“Idunno ma but every port I open (50693) stinks like the oikosed, costly.”), is inundated with the history of Western philosophy (Aristotle to Deleuze, and beyond), political economy and canonical literature. Scappetone’s attitude toward, and strategic reworking of, this monolithic hegemony resembles Judith Goldman’s in her recent, and underappreciated deconstruction of Western history, l.b.; or the catenaries. The repetition of key terms—king, cataract, implicit, beauty, etc.—gives these sprawling, seemingly unrelated texts formal and thematic coherence. Divided into four major sections—In Acres, Publicities2, Illocatable Hours and Abluvion—this book deploys grammatical and agrammatical sentences and phrases to carve out a non-site from which a “dame” may speak, may write, may be. But, as Shakespeare and Marx make clear in their respective texts, Falstaff and Das Kapital, however unwittingly (and thus wit, for Scappettone, is another device for excavating subconscious assumptions), a “dame” is a pre-Mrs, and the resistance to this logic of the oikos (also explored in Picture Palace) is interminable. Every woman, domesticated or not, is a “dame” everywhere. This engendering of biological differences crosses cultural, political and economic lines (as the recent call for sobriety at poetry reading sand political events demonstrates). For Scappettone, every turn in history, whether progressive (the political revolutions of the early 20th century) or reactionary (the rise of the fasces against the “king”), is another layer of sediment over the “problem” of women. Every consolidation under any “Consensus Series” (“of unison how rank ever/over apparently—girl/accompli—widow of the/shadow of the next was/in a minimalist present…” is perforce another mode of “The Carapace.” Filtering up from under “there,” language is “heard” only in bits and pieces, in shreds of phrases or single words: “Past she has       Attempted       To answer       Fails light as      Toward.” Because each turn of history is a deepening of the sediment, each “New War” renders Dame Quickly (and rapidity is a necessary feature of wit, as though one has to speak quickly before one is, again, muffled) literally implicit, folded into, under: “Epithets—given down? I am a most implicit maze.” The word “maze” is another residue of, and echolocation for, what Scappettone calls “The Antigonal Complex.” Inflected with citations from Hegel and Sophocles, this particular poem is written in a deceptively straightforward narrative in which the question of gender is buried beneath the first person plural that, by the end, echoes the Talking Heads: “”When we reached the EU the first person plural was different as ever is.” The burial of differences is refracted through the promissory note (a kind of violation of an idealized future) of the opening sentences: “Freshly gashed with the suppleness of persons we left Buda and Pest for Gorj; I entered Romania with a European passport in the surname of my father’s father and exited American under the standard mistranscribed moniker…” In this context, from the Romanian point of view, the First World War was “the War of Reunification,” signaled thirteen pages later in the poem “Beauty.” Here Buda and Pest are now Budapest and we have returned to our origins: ”Noah’s window in the sponsored portico a many-quartered relief,/striation reproducing rain’s medieval having/couples parallel as/plans (fields empty) (for supper) of loving correspondence—as silver dove//is—exotic—an excuse—or just our being//now yet/as/after/again.” I could go on to discuss the many other affiliations Scappettone draws between modernity, progress and the unaffected status of women (sops—like the vote—notwithstanding) but these too few examples will have to do. from Dame Quickly is remarkable in its breadth and striking in its intensely felt intelligence.