PoemTalk

Choice and style (PoemTalk #20)

LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), 'Kenyatta Listening to Mozart'

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“Kenyatta Listening to Mozart” is an early poem of Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. It was published in a periodical in late 1963 and we’re assuming — for the sake of our discussion, which gets into some political history — that it was written earlier that year. Our recording was made at the Asilomar Negro Writers Conference held in the summer of 1964.

Mecca Sullivan, Herman Beavers and Alan Loney were our PoemTalkers for this quietly provocative — and perhaps brutally self-critical — poem. All four of us saw two political and aesthetic scenes, at least in the opening: “the back trails” of pre-Independence Kenya, and “American poets in San Francisco,” certainly standing in, at least momentarily, for Baraka’s two somewhat distinct concerns at the time: post-colonial radicalism, and the Beat aesthetic. One could say, not quite accurately — but helpful for starters — that this was a time when Baraka was making the move from his Beat nexus to world-conscious political heterodoxy.

Mecca and Alan discuss the apparently ironic juxtaposition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Jomo Kenyatta, the Euro-trained anthropologist Kikuyu tribesman who helped lead the Kenyan negotiations with the British. Mecca wonders if, as elsewhere in his writing, Baraka is making Mozart as a cultural symbol susceptible to criticism in light of non-European struggles for basic freedoms. Is the “zoo of consciousness” the situation one finds oneself after one has separated and lost (“Separate / and lose”) or is it indeed endemic to the decision to cross aesthetics, share “in- / formation” (formalisms), and assimilate apparent opposites? Do we need to figure Kenyatta walking on the back trails, in sun glasses (a marker of “cool,” one of us says), wearing spats, in order to shake into being a real postcolonial anthropological notion? It’s not just “choice, and / style.” Well, it's that, but also more--for the “beautiful / categories” with which we discern what gets to be called beautiful are not necessarily things we should “go for.”<--break- />

Learn the language (PoemTalk #19)

Bob Perelman, 'The Unruly Child'

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At right, left to right, PoemTalkers Tom Mandel, Sarah Dowling, Rodrigo Toscano.

Bob Perelman began to write “The Unruly Child” using as a pattern Cesar Vallejo’s “The Right Meaning”. Vallejo: “Mother, you know there is a place somewhere called Paris. It’s a huge place and a long way off and it really is huge.” The Peruvian’s own mother had been dead many years at the time her son wrote the prose-poem, and it is a sad call back from late 1930s Paris (with all its politics, both fascist and antifascist — a tense scene in which Vallejo participated) to a lost Peruvian motherness — pre-self-exilic, pre-political.

The gesture creates a distance and a desperate emotion at once. “I want both modes of address to resonate,” Perelman wrote to us at PoemTalk before our discussion. “Vallejo’s heartfelt/estranged address to his mother is further estranged by my detourned quoting, but it’s heartfelt, too. Kind of a chiastic structure: heartfelt/estranged: estranged/heartfelt.”

Tom Mandel, a second-time PoemTalker and an old colleague of Perelman, wanted (at least at first) to stave off theoretically sophisticated readings and to talk of the poem’s speaker as Perelman himself: Bob the witty talented impatient poet, Bob the literally unruly son. In its late-70s/early-80s political context, the poem risked being deemed mere bourgeoisified radicalism; but on second much-later thought, it seems to succeed in tracing the deformed social development of the political son of the American mother who learns the language by refusing to learn its “right” meaning.

Thus the term “unruly” is crucial to all this poet's pajama play: a certain energetic conception of language has a politics. Sarah Dowling helpfully discusses the word “desirable” in connection with Marathon Oil. “If you’re the unruly child,” Sarah notes, “you have to ask questions as to why it [Marathan Oil] is not desirable.” What values inhere in that skepticism? What do they do to the nostalgically summoned mother? “The unruly child,” adds Rodrigo Toscano, “is a place for language to shake out in periods of instability, a transition from one historical moment to the next. And it seems to want to reset the terms under which he is willing to talk politically. He’s trying to renegotiate how he’s going to be a hostage to representation.” Tom Mandel heartily agrees with that. In the poem, we have this directive: “Learn the language. / That beautiful tongue-in-cheek hostage situation.” (It’s a 1979/80-ish poem and the situation is of course the American Embassy hostage-taking in Teheran.)

“The Unruly Child” was published in To the Reader (1984), an early Perelman book, and then reprinted in Ten to One, his book of selected poems. He recorded this poem for PennSound’s Studio 111 series in 2004, offering a brief comment on each poem recited. Before reading our poem, he mentions that To the Reader was the first book in which he regularly “used the present political landscape for subject matter.” <--break- />

The sort of person you imagine (PoemTalk #18)

Lydia Davis, 'A Position at the University'

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PoemTalk finally goes squarely at the question of authenticity, and — wouldn’t you know it? — we do so through a piece that is not in any conventional sense a poem. Lydia Davis’ “A Position at the University” (published with other similar short prose pieces in Almost No Memory) suggests to Jessica Lowenthal that on this day our show was “PoemProseTalk.” Fair enough. Is it a very short story – in the mode of what we call “fiction”? Not really. Is it a poetic parable in prose? (It struck Al at one point as very much like a pondering paragraph from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) Thank goodness we brought sociologist David Grazian along. David observes that this piece is like an ethnographic field note. A field note that observes the following: In daily life, authenticity functions the way imagination does. What advantage is derived by writing about authenticity in this linguistically circular manner, in the grammar of mild-seeming discontent? Well, for one thing, it stipulates a poetics; the language of the piece makes us acutely aware as we read or listen that anxiety is the close kin of identity, because identity-naming is always partial whereas the named/identified subject is always hoping for wholeness. That discrepancy – that difference – creates a weird aura, and perhaps this is why Adrian Khactu senses that this piece belongs in the category of mundane SF, the newish sci fi mode in which there are no monsters, scientific abnormalities, cruel transformations. Perhaps the cruelest transformation is what happens every day when a person who thinks of herself in one way is assumed to have a “position” otherwise.

Psycho-acoustics (PoemTalk #17)

Rodrigo Toscano, 'Poetics'

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We know one poet who can bring Kim Jong-il, Montezuma and Maggie Thatcher — and us — together to the table. It’s Rodrigo Toscano, and more specifically the Rodrigo Toscano who wrote the poems collected in the book Platform. The word “platform,” Al notes in this newest PoemTalk episode, suggests something programmatic, something being contended overall. And one plank, as it were, of this platform is — for Toscano — the relatively light (comic, playful, quick) poem “Poetics,” suggesting an aesthetic program, maybe even an ars poetica. Taking this titular cue, the PoemTalkers this time, Randall Couch, Linh Dinh, and Emily Abendroth, sought to piece together the ranging geo-political references, heard the many different registers, tried to place them in a musical idiom, and either concluded that the “Psycho-Acoustic[…] / Jangling” makes a beautiful sound and has a special political force or that the jangling, while beautiful, puts the platform’s meaning just out of reach. Al, Emily, and Randall take the former view of the poem, while Linh, in a dissenting mood, takes the latter.

That musical idiom is jazz. The political import of “Pyongyang” — the jarring disharmonious pesty capital of North Korea, an uncooperative element in any poem — leads us in one direction. But its sheer sound sounds more like jazz than communism.

Because I am always talking (PoemTalk #16)

Robert Creeley, 'I Know a Man'

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Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man” is in many ways a signature poem. Few poems we choose to discuss on PoemTalk are such. Many are downright unrepresentative. This one might indeed be unrepresentative but if a person knows just one Creeley poem this is probably it.

It’s been much written about. In The San Francisco Renaissance Michael Davidson explores the “Beat ethos” with a detailed reading of “I Know a Man.” Similarly, PoemTalkers Randall Couch, Jessica Lowenthal and Bob Perelman find beat here — but also its counterargument, and/or a rejoinder to its dark depth and to the beat propensity for driving nowhere (or somewhere) fast. Robert Kern in boundary 2 — a 1978 essay — finds postmodern poetics in the Creeleyite anthem: in a nutshell, composition as recognition. Cid Corman (himself the topic of an upcoming PoemTalk) finds and commends the “basic English” of the poem, comparing it with a “more refined” and less effective poem on a similar topic by Louis MacNeice. Walter Sutton back in ‘73 drew a line of influence from Charles Olson’s poetics to Creeley’s “laconic” and “spasmodic” lineation and rhetoric.

The PoemTalkers talk about this remarkable instance of eloquent stammering. The stammer is perhaps the apt way — since form is never more than an extension of content, and vice versa, after all! — of heading into the surrounding mid-1950s darkness, only to be brought up short by the actual needs of the actual American road. It is not a resolution and not a capitulation, but an assertive and possibly ironic (funny, anyway) means of bringing up short. Or, in short: more stammering.