PoemTalk

Paddling ladders (PoemTalk #11)

Erica Hunt, 'voice of no'

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When a poet asserts she has the voice of no, does that mean she has it — has got that voice down, can do that voice — and wants to know it from the inside in order to get past it, or wants to doubt it, so that she and we can get on to the positive change we seek? Or is, finally, that voice her voice? A withering critique of present conditions (21st-century-style hyper-mediation; disorientation and alienation; natural disasters in response to which there are human-made failures): is that what this voice of no voices?

Well, you can imagine that our PoemTalkers, talking Erica Hunt’s poem “the voice of no” from her magnificent illustrated book of poems Arcade, came to no simple conclusion to the above-posed questions. One reason is that the poem starts in a comically self-aware yet censorious maternal voice and then gives way, from a longer view and somewhat more omniscient p.o.v., to geopolitical social ills that indirectly but devastatingly follow (the personal is political for Hunt, for damned sure).

Elizabeth Willis joined us this time, as did Julia Bloch — for both, first appearances on PoemTalk. And an insightful regular, Jessica Lowenthal, formed up our foursome.

Portrait, but of whom? (PoemTalk #10)

Gertrude Stein, 'Christian Bérard'

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“Stein leaves no doubt…that she’s doing portraits in the same way that Picasso and Braque are doing portraits.” So says Jerome Rothenberg — very helpfully — in the first minute of our discussion of Gertrude Stein’s “Christian Bérard.” PennSound’s Stein page includes a recording made in New York during the winter of 1934-35 of the first page of the poem as it appeared in Portraits & Prayers, the Random House volume that had just been published. The portrait of Bérard — a friend of Stein’s, a painter and set designer and frequenter of her salon — had been written in 1928.

But back to Jerry’s statement, meant to get us to talk about non-representational depictions, for (the first line of the poem), “Eating is her subject. / While eating is her subject. / Where eating is her subject” certainly does suggest, emphatically, that neither Bérard nor anyone else is the subject of the poem.

The beginnings concept (PoemTalk #9)

John Ashbery, 'Crossroads in the Past'

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Our PoemTalkers — this time, Gregory Djanikian, Tom Devaney and Jessica Lowenthal — gathered to talk about a late poem by John Ashbery, “Crossroads in the Past,” from his book Your Name Here (2000). Amid the usual Ashberyean ontological bounty, here’s a poem that disentangles the crossed lines of narrative middles and ends (and beginnings). Straightens things out, or at least imagines the goodness of such straightness. And indulges in a nostalgia for the way things were at the start.

Is it age — or the loss of a loved one — that draws an anti-narrative poet to beginnings at the end? That, in short, is the question we posed of this poem. And does such a thing undermine a career-long devotion to middles with implied pre-stories? The wind blows in the direction it blows, and can’t be “wrong.” What about a “relationship”? Can — or should — a relationship be talked back to its beginnings, a narrative housecleaning?

Jessica and Greg decided finally that the apparently definitive ending dead-ends in an obvious imagery and sentiment. Tom and Al disagreed, seeing the poem as thus a meta-poem: a poem about the poet who has reached a point where he must re-imagine “the beginnings concept” and who realizes its failure.

John Ashbery read this poem as a Kelly Writers House Fellow in the spring of 2002. We have video recordings of the reading and an interview/conversation moderated by Al Filreis.

Grease is the word (PoemTalk #8)

Rae Armantrout, 'The Way'

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This time the PoemTalkers were Ron Silliman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein, and our poem was Rae Armantrout’s “The Way.” Charles had already spoken with Rae about this poem briefly during their interview in the Close Listening series, so we went into our convo knowing that Rae sees the poem as having two compositional parts—a first part consisting of found phrases, items from the poet’s notebook of linguistic observations, a collage of voices, no fixed I. “I am here” is Jesus revealed to you in a pew, but I is also a poem’s prospective speaker: someone saying something tautological. Where else would you be, at the moment, than here? The second half, again according to the poet—revealingly or not—is a quasi-personal recollection: being read to as a child, getting lost in a story and thus feeling “abandoned” by the mother who gave her the gift of books. Gretel-like, does she “come upon” these trees, this wood, each time diving into the wreck of each new now-nonnarrative venture? The most relevant of such ventures being...this poem itself? Who is lost in it? Have we lost the poem’s speaker, only to come upon her again (and again)?

Charles chants lyrics from Grease: Grease is the way I am feeling. Rachel reminds us that “I am here” can also read as “Kilroy was here” does — a marker left by someone who came randomly before. Ron helps us focus on the ending: a grand vision expected, a definitive something, the light coming down through the trees, and what we get is…“again.” The sort of thing that keeps happening over and over. “Once” (as in “once upon a time”) in “once again” (the fairy tale’s synchronicity).

Now is the time (PoemTalk #7)

Jerome Rothenberg, 'A Paradise of Poets'

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Bob Holman spent a few hours away from the at-times paradisal Bowery Poetry Club to help us (PoemTalk regulars Jessica Lowenthal and Randall Couch) figure out what sort of beloved community Jerome Rothenberg had in mind when he wrote his possibly programmatic poem, “A Paradise of Poets.” He published this short poem in a volume called Seedings and only then, a little later, published the book called A Paradise of Poets (which lacks the title poem). Confused? Please don’t be. The poem is a working out of the major preoccupying themes of the book that followed.

And what a book it is! In A Paradise of Poets we re-visit Paradise…err, sorry…Paris, where the ghosts of JR’s modernist forebearers (the generation of 1910, he says) appear to him in the guise of Left Bank street people, well dressed but destitute. He anticipates his own demise; he is lonely yet surrounded by the voices of poets he admires. And he realizes that a paradise of poets is only possible when one poet’s line stops just as the next poet’s line continues, a “line” indeed, as in lineage.

Bob, Jessica and Randall agree in our discussion that this is a heartfelt conclusion and that it must come in stages, beginning with the sort of poetic narcissism under the spell of which the poet believes that no one else can write his poem, even as he is writing over (literally on top of) that of his predecessor.

The world will not end when he does.

Asserting the centrality of such connectedness, Jerome Rothenberg, it was said by Allen Ginsberg, saved us all twenty years. Or, as Bob Holman put it, “He was Google before there was Google.”