PoemTalk

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.”

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.