Kristen Gallagher, Kerry Sherin Wright, and Joshua Schuster converged on Philadelphia to help us celebrate twenty years of the Kelly Writers House. Al Filreis took the opportunity of this reunion of KWH founders to convene a PoemTalk session on the work of a fourth founder — Michael Magee. This was Magee in his pre-Flarf days, the late 1990s. He was finishing a doctoral dissertation on Emerson, pragmatism, Ellison, and jazz; was beginning a relationship with the person, now his partner, who had created the Kensington Needle Exchange; and was taking long, daily morning Emersonian/Whitmanian constitutionals, walking the city incessantly described as the cradle of constitutional democracy. The book of poems resulting from these experiences was Morning Constitutional.
Al Filreis brought together Yolanda Wisher (Monk Eats an Afro; the new poet laureate of Philadelphia), Charles Bernstein (Pitch of Poetry; codirector of PennSound), and Patricia Spears Jones (Lucent Fire: New & Selected) to talk about a poem by Akilah Oliver. It’s a prose poem to be found (on pp. 43–44) in Oliver’s bookthe she said dialogues: flesh memory (1999) and is reproduced here below: “is you is or is you ain’t.” PennSound’s Akilah Oliver author page includes a recording of her performing this poem during a Segue Series reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York on January 6, 2007.
Rachel Zolf, Eileen Myles, and erica kaufman joined Al Filreis to talk about four short poems from what was then an unpublished typescript of a new book by Simone White. The book is Of Being Dispersed, now available from Futurepoem. White performed these and other poems from the collection at a Segue Series reading at Zinc Bar in New York on January 11, 2014. The work responds in part to George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous. Numerousness, pluralism, plenitude of subjects, objects, and sources, are certainly inclusive influences — but are also extended and even defied here by the agony and ferocity of dispersal, the sexual and racial sense of being pushed out.
Al Filreis traveled to Harvard University and was hosted for this on-the-road episode of PoemTalk by the staff of the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) in Lamont Library, where Lisa New, Rafael Campo, and WPR Director Christina Davis joined him for a conversation about Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour.” Probably Lowell’s most well-known poem, it was placed last in Life Studies (1959) but had been written first — and can be said to have inaugurated Lowell’s “looser” style, associated with his so-called “confessional” mode. When Lowell began composing “Skunk Hour,” he later recalled, “I felt that most of what I knew about writing was a hindrance.” Our conversation is taken up by the many conflicting aspects of that perceived hindrance. And on top of those there are, of course, the hindrances put up by the new, allegedly freeing style itself.
Simone White, Sophia Le Fraga, and Andrew Whiteman joined Al Filreis to talk about Ed Dorn’s “The Sundering U.P. Tracks.” A political reading of the poem emerges through the discussion, as they group situates it as a late-1960s reflection on a slightly earlier moment of realization and radicalization: the turning-point summer of 1965, when Dorn’s collaborator, photographer Leroy McLucas, arrived in Pocatello only to discover that he was to be housed on the other side of the tracks. The racial trope and idiom of the US East reverts to its literal origins in the making of the US West. And there it is: the key fault line, a built-environment actuality and metaphor. Dorn here is ready rhetorically and politically for a counter-expansion that rereads American generations of Manifest Destiny, monopoly, segregation, and local oligarchy on one hand, and, on the other, “summer firebombs / of Chicago.”