PoemTalk

Hold your breath and gag (PoemTalk #6)

Jaap Blonk, 'What the President Will Say and Do'

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It’s easy to imagine that when Tracie Morris (the performer and musical poet) and Kenny Goldsmith (father of Ubuweb, proponent of uncreative writing) joined me and Joshua Schuster as PoemTalkers there would be some noise, pure noise, and indeed there was. So why not go all the way and make our poem a sound poem: Jaap Blonk’s insistently sounded performance of the phrase that is the title of a book by Madeline Gins. What the president will say and do. What, indeed?

Joshua and Kenny and I had seen and heard Blonk perform the piece in the very room where we recorded this episode of PoemTalk; Tracie and Kenny had heard him do it for the first time, at a conference in L.A. where Gins was in the audience. So we had this one covered from all sides.

“So,” I asked, “what do you think is the deficiency of having only an audio recording of this?” I was thinking of Blonk’s strained reddening face and neck toward the end of the piece: a giant of a man holding his breath and choking on words. Kenny’s response to this question: “I don't think there's any deficiency, because he's such a good performer that the audio component of the performance carries the day. And if you’re lucky enough to see him it’s even more incredible in a different way, but I don’t think anything is lost without him being there.” Tracie agrees: “You listen. You just listen. There are so many great things he’s doing with that piece.”

So do, please, listen. Listen to us, yes, but listen especially to Blonk.

Tracie hears patriotic marching in the percussive deformation of the sound of the words (and specifically hears Sousa). Josh hear resonances with presidential politics (to which Tracie adds that she also hears chickens). That leads Josh and me to take some advantage of an apparent split in the soundy camp between the overtly political music poet (Tracie) and the pleasure-seeking all-words-are-already-political gatherer of verbal ambience (Kenny). The political/aesthetic binarism collapses rather quickly, but it’s fun (and edifying) while it lasts.

Doing not enough every day (PoemTalk #5)

Ted Berrigan, '3 Pages'

A list of Bohemian pleasures. Ted Berrigan’s “3 Pages” is a list poem, surely. He mentions ten things he does every day (including “read lunch poems,” surely a reference to Frank O’Hara’s book of that title) but the PoemTalkers — Randall Couch, Linh Dinh and special guest erica kaufman — had trouble counting them. We got to nine, and pondered. erica then suggested that she “would count ‘NOT ENOUGH’ as being ten.” The last line of the poem. Those American things (heart attack, Congressional medal, second home) that immediately precede the last line…well, for Berrigan, they don’t add up.

So our PoemTalk poem this time is a summing-up poem (Berrigan hinted as such a quality) that sums up by affixing “not enough” to the total. We four liked this sort of life, were turned on by it. Oh, set us down by the waters of Manhattan.

Aside from O’Hara there are further literary references here in this poem about leading the literary life. By the Waters of Manhattan is the novel of another important New Yorker poet, Charles Reznikoff. Al says: “‘NO HELP WANTED’ as a placard turns around the usual, ‘You’re an American boy, get a job.’” Ahabian resistance to progress and accumulation and reason, in a world of Starbucks. We found the rhetoric of folk song here, and we saw indeed deep traces of Moby Dick’s irrational-rational aestheticism. “Hunting for the Whale” is one of the “ten” things a Berrigan poem does for us every single day.

For the purposes of introducing the idea of the list poem to people not used to seriatic ways of modern and contemporary poetry, we agree that this poem is the perfect instance with which to start. “Teachable” in that sense.

Bard goes country (PoemTalk #4)

Allen Ginsberg sings Blake's 'The Garden of Love'

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Hear the voice of the bard…

Which bard? Well, we’re not quite sure how bardic Charles Bernstein is, but he certainly loves the idea of poem as song; he jouned some by-now regular PoemTalkers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal) and chanted for us that very line. We’ve worn the grooves on an old LP of Allen Ginsberg signing William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and for the fourth PoemTalk chose Ginsberg’s countrified (crossover?) rendition of “The Garden of Love.” Does the snappy, twangy (and relatively tuneful) setting create an irony? Jessica thinks yes; Charles thinks no.

But perhaps the tune should be in conflict with the poem’s sense, and thus perhaps Ginsberg was not so much pushing a song of experience into a popular (and thus single-direction-tending) mode so much as making it still more Blakean.

The binary of innocence and experience, Rachel says, is broken by the way the song is sung. Blake wanted the binary to be broken; Ginsberg only breaks it further. And seems to be having fun along the way.

Listen for the happy out-take at the end. We had some fun ourselves, albeit somewhat atonally and quite arhythmically.

Don't know how to say (PoemTalk #3)

George Oppen, 'Ballad'

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Joined this time by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, the PoemTalkers wasted no time grappling with George Oppen’s grappling with the real. The rock of the island he’s visiting — its locatedness to be cherished — “outlived the classicists.” Is this anti-academic? Yes, we agreed. On an island in Maine, he meets a lobsterman and his wife and finds them super-articulate and at the same time admirably, wonderfully halting in their speech (like Oppen himself here). Oppen: “Difficult to know what one means.” The lobsterman’s wife: “I don't know how to say.” We are all in this real together. Jessica was just back from Vegas, Linh from Iceland, Rachel from teaching a class on the other side of town. Which instruments — archaic and etymologically historical or local, broken-toothed and ready-at-hand — are the tools that will help us understand where exactly we are? “Geo-positioning” seemed to be the word of the day.

No place for little lyric (PoemTalk #2)

Adrienne Rich, 'Wait'

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When Adrienne Rich wrote the poem “Wait” she and many Americans and others were awaiting the start of what seemed an inevitable war in Iraq, in March 2003. The PoemTalk crew — Jessica Lowenthal, Linh Dinh, Randall Couch and your convener-host Al Filreis — couldn't wait (as it were) to get going on this terrestrial poem. Is it a personal is political poem? The soldier, after all, looks at his or her wedding ring and thinks about why s/he wasn’t told...but not told what? Is it a make love, not war poem? Is it a political poem at all? The Iraqi desert is “no place for the little lyric.” The gang variously wonders if the poem had something large to contend about lyric’s talent for reminding us of reasons why war is inhuman? Randall thinks it isn’t much of a war (or antiwar) poem; its strengths diminish as it gets more clearly into its political subject; in the end it closes off “with a click.” Linh prefers a less formalistic approach. Jessica and Al riff on the 1930s-style “hobos in a breadline” genre: its reputation for conservative form carrying radical content. Is this a formally conservative poem? If so, there’s an irony, for sure. The PoemTalkers can only agree that such a question is open, making the poem all the more interesting (and in that sense it’s a meta-poem, a poem about the problems of political poems).