Trained listener (PoemTalk #35)

Bruce Andrews, 'Center'


The range of Bruce Andrews’s work is fairly well represented by the recordings available on his PennSound page. The earliest recorded reading we have dates from late 1977, the most recent (as of this writing) is from 2008. Generally it is true that PoemTalk’s format – the choice of a single short poem for which a recording exists – will tend to misrepresent the whole of the poet’s work. Fortunately it’s not the aim of PoemTalk to represent the whole, but to have a good and earnest listen and look at the single instance along the way, Having done this 35 times in this series, we find, mostly to our surprise, that tenable general statements of a poet’s mode and aesthetic disposition do come through the back door of low conceptual expectations. Surely that’s what happened here, when Tan Lin, Chris Funkhouser, Sarah Dowling and Al Filreis took on a single poem from Andrews’ sequence called Moebius. Moebius was written in the late 1970s but not published until 1993, when a chapbook appeared from the Generator Press in Ohio. On November 10, 1977 Andrews came to the Ear Inn in New York, performed at a reading alongside Ray DiPalma and Michael Lally, and gave us fine readings of many of the Moebius poems, including “Center,” which is the piece we discuss in PT35.

First we found something we took to be unusual in Andrews: the emphasis on distancing goes along with a tone of softness and wistfulness (as Sarah suggests), perhaps even vulnerability notwithstanding the aggressive idiom (“I make the rules here”). But soon we sensed we were seeing the Bruce Andrews we would know from later works. Naturally one asks if the speaker of these masculine phrases--all this deliberate 70s guy talk--is an individual, a single subject. No, Tan Lin suggests, the poem’s phrases comprise not those of an individual speaker but identify the language production we associate with a particular kind of speaker. So the poem is a meta-statement on how language is generated and that, in turn, constructs a kind of identity, although that identity is never really offered. As Chris points out, the poem feels like an aggressive encroachment on the white space of the page. The poem, spiraling down the page, forces one to think of a moebius shape which claims centrality (has a center but yet doesn’t quite). Such a claim, because of the moebius, will seem repeatedly arbitrary, and so does the normative standard for the discernment, by socio-linguistic cues, of a fixable speaking identity, and so that (the emptiness of that effort) is your center. (Which is to say: what center? why are you looking here for one?)<--break- />

Back to geography (PoemTalk #34)

Charles Olson, 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)'


Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein converged on Al’s office-studio to attempt what Al in his intro dubs a “daunting” task — to talk somehow about one of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems in such a way that would make the poem make sense and might serve as a good introduction to The Maximus Poems more generally. We don’t know if we succeeded but we certainly had fun trying. We chose a poem for which PennSound has two recordings, one made at the August 1963 Vancouver Poetry Festival and another made in Boston in 1962. As listeners will learn from episode 34 here, we also discovered that someone has made a YouTube video clip from a segment of the film about Olson, Polis Is This. In this segment, Olson reads the poem with what Rachel calls choreographic gestures, motions that continually point up the forward/backward, in-body/away planes or zones of geographic understanding. We happily add, below, a link to this remarkable but probably — most of us would agree — overdone performance.

The title of that film comes from the memorable final line of our poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld),” the last parenthetic term here referring to the fact that it was excluded from the first major collection of Maximus Poems, The Maximus Poems of 1960. Excluded but then apparently much in demand and/or much admired by Olson himself.

The poem, especially at the start (in which a family anecdote is told), seems personal and almost (in the term then popular) “confessional.” But, as the PoemTalkers put it, it soon begins to do the usual Maximus thing, engaging a vortexical historical method line by line, and gesturing hugely at the convergences of geography and culture across eras and the (at turns) triumphant and lamentable westwardness of everything.

Is Flarf corrosive? (PoemTalk #33)

Sharon Mesmer, 'I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington'


Kenneth Goldsmith, Nada Gordon and Steve McLaughlin gathered in Al’s office/recording studio at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Sharon Mesmer’s flarfy gem, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington.”

The recording we used was made at the Writers House in February of 2007, at a mini Flarf Poetry Festival organized by our own Steve McLaughlin. We’re pretty sure that the poem was first posted to the flarflist – a listserv of flarf practitioners (and a few nonpracticing advocates) that serves as a medium for trying out all sorts of improvisational and quasi-improvisational poetic “bottom-feeding” (to use Kenny G.’s positive phrase). Is flarf poetic, non-poetic or anti-poetic, or, anyway, what combination is it of those three? That turns out to be the crux of our discussion. What “poetic” elements and devices does Mesmer retain and employ, and to what effect? Gary Sullivan originally defined flarf writing as, among other things, “corrosive,” and when Al asks the group whether Mesmer’s poem is corrosive, a fascinating discussion ensues: in part, we seem to move away from Sullivan’s notion. And since this is a poem, at least at first (at least superficially [superficially?!]) about Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot during a boondoggling hunting trip in Texas, it seems reasonable to ask about the political meaning or import of the piece.

The answer is hardly straightforward. At one point Steve pulls out the smoking gun (as it were), proving that Sharon Mesmer took most of the poem verbatim from Internet sources. And what about taste? Al puts it straight to Kenny, who has sometimes argued that one conceptual work is effective, while another work is not--the key being, the quality of choice of of concept. So what, Al asks, is the role of aesthetic distinction and valuation? Nada adds some possibly quite relevant biographical information, so we are led to ponder: What does Mesmer’s family of blood-on-apron butchers and her own principled vegetarianism have to do with the politics of the poem – its critique of a culture in which everything, actually and figuratively, tastes like chicken? It is, of course, a culture that includes this poem and makes it entirely (and specifically) possible.Here is Sharon Mesmer's PennSound author page, and here is a direct link to a recording of the poem. Here is a link to one of Mesmer's internet sources.

Art and power (PoemTalk #32)

Emily Dickinson's 'My Life had stood…' and Susan Howe's 'My Emily Dickinson'



Outside the box (PoemTalk #31)

Robert Grenier's 'Sentences'


Five hundred cards in a box: on each is typewritten a few words or phrases of poetic writing. This is Robert Grenier’s Sentences. Al gathered Joseph Yearous-Algozin, Jena Osman, and Bob Perelman to talk about this complex work. As Jena notes several times, there’s something odd about producing an audio discussion about a oral reading or performance by Grenier from a work that was and is so closely associated with a material text-object. A text-object that indeed has become famously central to people’s response to the writing in it. So one question immediately is on that count: by performing the work (and by doing so with such comic pleasure, and even, at times, with such schtickiness), is Grenier signaling to us that our focus on the object is misleading — that Sentences is meant to be always somewhat and variously unmoored from the codex book and the normally printed-on-page poem? All the PoemTalkers, led by Bob, want to discuss in some way how and why Robert Grenier always forces us to think about the most fundamental qualities and definitions of poetry. And surely this is good in itself.

In October 2006 Charles Bernstein interviewed Grenier for the “Close Listening” program. During that discussion Grenier reads from and discusses a few of the cards from Sentences, including “Bird / I wonder if I do,” a representation of birdsong that occupies the PoemTalkers for a few minutes and causes Bob Perelman to look back on his own critical effort to comprehend Grenier. In the second of a two-part interview with Grenier, Al, Charles, and Michael Waltuch discuss the actual construction of Sentences, a project in which Waltuch played a role. If you listen to the interview you’ll get to hear Waltuch and Grenier talk together about that moment.

The remarkable performance of a selection of cards from Sentences that serves as the basis of our PoemTalk discussion was given at the Poetry Project, at St. Mark’s Church, in New York, in April 1981. PennSound’s Grenier author page includes a full recording of that reading. One of the two excerpts featured in PoemTalk, the one beginning “CONCEPTS / they see us,” has been made available as an excerpt also on Grenier’s PennSound page.<--break- />