Cloud House Poetry Archives

Larry Eigner: Sacred Materials

"stand on one foot // like a tree" -- Larry Eigner
Poetry Magazine Tweet, June 21, 2013

A few days ago, the Poetry Magazine Twitter (@poetrymagazine) tweeted a rather simple link to an excerpt from their February 1964 issue, featuring six poems by Larry Eigner. Tweeting links to poems in old issues is fairly standard practice for @poetrymagazine, but the Eigner feature made me think back to some of the truly great video features on PennSound: The Larry Eigner “Sacred Materials” recordings, and The Cloud House Poetry Archives, which was generous enough to make these recordings of Eigner available.

The “Sacred Materials” consist of three videos: the last public reading given by Eigner on November 17, 1995 (he would pass away a little over two months later on February 3, 1996); the Jewish Ground Ceremony for Eigner on February 6, 1996; and a tour later that day of Eigner's Writing Environs, which shows the mountains of manuscripts surrounding Eigner's typewriter where he painstakingly composed his poems. The latter two videos are fascinating insights into Eigner's life and social circle, while the final reading is an historically significant clip of one of the giants of Twentieth Century American Poetry.

Eigner's final reading was given at the 1995 Gertrude Stein Marathon in Berkeley, California, and consists of a reading of an excerpt from Stein's Three Lives. The text of the reading, while initially unknown, was eventually discovered by Kush, the man who recorded these events, and founder of the Cloud House Poetry Archives. He details the discovery and gives the text in an account posted on PennSound. The excerpt of Stein's text which Eigner reads (and which I reproduce from Kush’s account), is:

I see—I see—don't crowd so on me,—I see—I see—too many forms—don't crowd so on me—I see—I see—you are thinking of something—you don't know whether you want to do it now. I see—I see—don't crowd so on me—I see—I see—you are not sure,—I see—I see—a house with trees around it,—it is dark—it is evening—I see—I see—you go in the house—I see—I see you come out—it will be all right—you go and do it—do what you are not certain about—it will come out all right—it is best and you should do it now.

As mesmerizing as Eigner’s reading is, however, Kush is fascinating in his own right. I first came across Kush's name when digitizing a number of cassette tapes owned by Bill Berkson. I'll never forget which tape either—it was a recording of Frank O'Hara reading in 1964. In the middle of the reading, O'Hara says that he is about to read from a forthcoming book which will be published later that year, entitled, Lunch Poems. The tape was labeled “Kush Dub,” and, being a little star-struck by the O’Hara Reading, I asked about the “Kush” labeling.“Kush is the name of a person who went to every poetry reading in the Bay Area for decades, obsessively recording each and every one of them,” was the gist of the answer. And while this seems to be an obvious exaggeration, the more I learn about Kush from various Bay Area poets, the more it seems like he may actually have attended every single reading.

This kind of prescience is truly astounding. With these recordings, Kush has gone on to start The Cloud House Poetry Archives, an active project seeking to establish a home for the wealth of unique recordings that Kush has made over the years. We are incredibly fortunate to host a small selection of these recordings, currently ranging in dates from 1990 to 2011, on PennSound. I would like to think that the expanding archive of recordings on PennSound and Ubuweb over the years, combined with the development of YouTube, and the proliferation of recording devices has made the poetry reading an internationally actively-archived event that deserves its own field of study outside of performance theory, where the poet's performance in a reading has more traditionally been housed. How do we think of the space of the poetry reading, in the context of dedicated and non-dedicated poetry spaces, material composition of the physical space, audience composition, and public visibility? Can we develop a framework for both the act of recording events as well as “reading” readings? How has the reading developed over time, and what does the future hold for the poetry reading? I believe that the work that Kush has done will always be at the forefront of these discussions, and his manifesto, Camera Poetics: Fielding Projective Verse/Olsonian Gesamtkunstwerk, will certainly become a necessary work.