But too beautiful (PoemTalk #108)

Tracie Morris, 'Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful'


Camara Brown, Edwin Torres, and Brooke O’Harra joined PoemTalk producer-host Al Filreis for a discussion of Tracie Morris’s “Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful.” The recording used as the basis of this conversation was made at the 2002 Whitney Museum Biennial Exhibit and is available on Morris’s PennSound page. The performance piece/musical poem was first performed at NYU in the 1990s, in a graduate performance theory course, a last-minute improvisation after Morris discovered she misplaced or lost her planned text, accompanied by — and intuitively responsive to — two colleagues whose dance movements, in part, reproduced the sweeping up-down motions of rice harvesting.

The three guest PoemTalkers being performers themselves, the conversation naturally turned to the crucial connection between voice as expressive subjectivity and voice as physical sonant effect. At one point, Al invites Brooke, Camara, and Edwin to describe the impact on their own work of Morris’s radicalization of the poetic voice as an agonizing through stereotype. Brooke emphasizes the theatrical power of verbal slippage, and all three describe the repetitively performed (Steinian) homophonic phrases as creating positive ambiguity. Al notes that Morris, here and in other pieces, engages the “antithetical sense of primal words” (Freud). “Ain’t” can also mean “is,” thus questions are also remarks, etc. Morris has the capacity to turn negatives into positives without leaving behind the aurality of the negative. And in this part of the discussion Al refers — though not as explicitly as he would like — to two other pieces: “Africa(n),” with “It all started when we were brought here as slaves from Africa” as its baseline, a stentorian “Afro-Shakespearian” sentence bespoken before it is taken vocally to pieces; and “Chain Gang,” which uses Sam Cooke’s “That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang” as its basis for variations emphasizing the broken work entailed. In “Slave Sho,” as the group discusses, the starting point is interestingly less clear than in other pieces. The group works this out. It seems to be “Ain't she beautiful?” with the historic progressive mantra “Black is Beautiful!” emerging sonically from “... but she’s too black.” Tracie Morris engages the stereotype — quotes it, repeats it — and then disengages from it, but only with great care taken so as not to dismember the sounds’ capacity for asserting the body’s beauty just as it is. The latter is a point Camara makes with particular cogency.

Episode #108 of the PoemTalk series was directed and engineered by Zach Carduner, and edited by the same Zach Carduner. You can subscribe to the PoemTalk podcast on iTunes. Join us for the next episode, in which Joseph Massey, Emily Harnett, and Siobhan Phillips discuss Kate Colby’s long poem I Mean. (Above at right, from left to right: Brooke O’Harra, Camara Brown, Edwin Torres. Photograph by Al Filreis.)

Christy Davids interviews erica lewis

PennSound podcast #56

erica lewis (left) and Christy Davids (right).


Christy Davids visited Kelly Writers House on October 24, 2016, to talk with erica lewis, who was passing through Philadelphia to give a reading in Jason Mitchell’s Frank O’Hara’s Last Lover series in between stops in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn. While in the studio, lewis read some work and talked about her box set trilogy, a three-part project that engages with pop music as memory device and formal procedure, reconsiders “the confessional” as a poetic mode, and delves into female family history in poems that are by turns performative, intertextual, and intensely sonic. We’re lucky to present this conversation here as a PennSound podcast. 

erica lewis lives in San Francisco, where she works as a fine arts publicist. Her books include the precipice of jupiter, camera obscura (both collaborations with artist Mark Stephen Finein), murmur in the inventory, and daryl hall is my boyfriend, book one in the box set trilogy. mary wants to be a superwoman,book two in the trilogy, is forthcoming from Jack White’s Third Man Books in 2017. Recent chapbooks have appeared from Belladonna, Lame House Press, and After Hours/The Song Cave. She was born in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Christy Davids is an assistant editor at The Conversant. She cocurates the Philadelphia-based reading series Charmed Instruments, and collects recordings at poetry//SOUNDS. Some of her work can be found in VOLT, Open House, Boog City, Bedfellows, the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet, and elsewhere; her chapbook “on heat” is forthcoming from BOAAT Press. — Julia Bloch

It is time (PoemTalk #107)

Paul Celan, 'Corona'

Paul Celan (photo credit: Romanian Cultural Institute, London)


Pierre Joris, Anna Strong, and Ariel Resnikoff joined Al Filreis to talk about Paul Celan’s well-known poem “Corona.” Celan had chosen to continue writing in German after the elimination of Jews from his town and the murder of his parents by the Nazis and their fascist allies — and maintained, to the say the very least, a complex relationship to the mother tongue he kept using with increasingly inventive disfiguration. There was a good deal of knowledge of the original difficult German in our Wexler Studio, although as PoemTalk is an English-language podcast series we focused on the challenges of the English translation. Our translation was done by Jerome Rothenberg in the late 1950s for his groundbreaking anthology New Young German Poets (1959, City Lights).

Another, more recent source for this and other Celan poems is Pierre Joris’s Paul Celan: Selections (University of California Press, 2005), where his own and others’ translations are variously available. While for his edition Pierre selected the now-classic Rothenberg version of “Corona,” in our conversation he (and also Anna) offer nuanced observations about alternative choices and possibilities.

Is “Corona” first and foremost a love poem? (Pierre persuasively leans toward that view — and offers a reading of the Paul Celan–Ingeborg Bachmann affair.) Or is it a poem about the dream of finally speaking out the truth, from a casement, to a gathering of the Austrian public, about hate’s annihilating effects? Anna and Al in particular favor the latter, darker view of the truth Celan feels it is time to know. What particular darkness do the lovers whisper? Or is it the goodly darkness of their night together? Obviously this poem, typical of Celan’s radical linguistic openness, makes space for both approaches, and more.

The director and engineer of PoemTalk episode 107 was Zach Carduner, and the very same Zach Carduner edited the recording. Over at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, we welcome a relatively new PoemTalk colleague, Meaghan Winston. We wish also to thank Cassie Mayer, Director of Digital Programs, for her ongoing support.

Next time on PoemTalk we will turn to a poem/performance piece by Tracie Morris called “Slave Sho to Video aka Black but Beautiful.” For our conversation Al will be be joined by Edwin Torres, Camara Brown, and Brooke O’Harra.



Autumn is eating a leaf from my hand: we are friends.
We are picking time out of a nut, we teach it to run:
and time rushes back to its shell.

In the mirror it’s Sunday.
in dreams people sleep,
the mouth tells the truth.

My eye descends to the sex of my loved one,
we gaze at each other,
we whisper our darkness,
we love one another like poppies and memory,
we sleep like wine in a sea-shell,
like the sea in the moon’s bloody rays.

Embracing we stand in the window, they look up at us from the street:
it is time that they knew!
It is time that the stone grew accustomed to blooming,
that unrest formed a heart.
It is time it was time.

It is time.

[as translated by Jerome Rothenberg, 1959]

Dear conflicted reader (PoemTalk #106)

C. D. Wright, 'One Big Self'


PoemTalk producer-host Al Filreis traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and was joined there by Mark McMorris, Mel Nichols, and Rob Casper to discuss C. D. Wright’s book-length poem One Big Self. We focused on the opening five pages of verse in the book, which include poem-sections entitled "Count Your Fingers," "Count heads," “In the Mansion of Happiness,” and 
"I Want to Go Home." And we added, from a few pages later, the poem “My Dear Conflicted Reader,” something of a belated proem. These sections can be found in the Copper Canyon Press edition of One Big Self on pages 3–8 and 14. One Big Self was published in 2003 with the subtitle “Prisoners of Louisiana” by Twin Palms Press with photographs by Deborah Luster, and then by Copper Canyon as One Big Self: An Investigation in 2007. From the C. D. Wright page at PennSound we hear recordings of these sections of this verse investigation — first from Wright’s 2003 reading at the Key West Literary Seminar and then from her reading at the University of Chicago in March of 2005.

C. D. Wright died suddenly and much, much too soon on January 12, 2016. PoemTalk sessions are of course mostly improvised and we had no idea how elegiac our discussion would be. We felt lucky to be able to focus on the ongoing life, as it were, of this brave and risky long poem (we discuss the risks at length), one that bears witness, as it turns out, in so many ways as to include its incessantly venturesome maker.

Zach Carduner traveled with Al to Washington, DC and made the recording, and, as always, edited it later. We wish to thank Rob Casper for hosting us in the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress — indeed in the Poet Laureate’s room, not far from the ceremonial laureate’s desk (the PoemTalkers posed in front of said desk for the photo at right).

No truths self-evident (PoemTalk #105)

Michael Magee, 'Morning Constitutional'

from left to right: Kristen Gallagher, Joshua Schuster, Kerry Sherin Wright (photo by Al Filreis).


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; was inventing the experimental little magazine Combo (under the auspices of the Writers House); 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, Morning Constitutional, was published in 1999 (by Kristen Gallagher’s Handwritten Press), and then again in 2001. In this special, extended episode of PoemTalk, we hear performances of, and then explore, three parts of Morning Constitutional: section 5, called “435 Chestnut Street: Benny’s Place”; section 6, “Independence Hall”; and section 10, “Kensington & Huntingdon Streets, The North Philadelphia Needle Exchange.” (He performed these and other poems from the project at the Kelly Writers House in 2001.)

Magee is interested, at the finest-sounded level of the word as such, in the history and the promise of US democracy. He writes, in the late ’90s, as someone living in a city where walking is the experience of having stated democratic values, as stated, constantly thrown into question. The poems we discuss consist of a merge of monumentalist big-historical, self-constituted rhetoric on one hand and, on the other, the present gathering of language as it is spoken, as it is heard, as it is believed. The result is a hopeful browning of the bronzed monumentalizing verbiage of the “found pops” (fathers) as it could be observed through Whitmanian empirical yet subjective witnessing. Every line is itself “a guarded ordering bordering on an underdog corner restoration.” In the hopeful (and frankly lyrical, and romantic) story of the needle exchange, we are presented with evidence “of still being here, the medivan arriving, the exchange beginning.” Magee never claims to be writing, in itself, an “indie tune pending censor.” He knows he has not been censored and so he seeks a way of hearing such a tune well and for good, and thus to spark the conversation, such as, we hope, is the one we have had here — about what it might take to reconstitute self-evident truths.

PoemTalk #105 was produced by Al Filreis, and directed and engineered by Zach Carduner, and edited by the same Zach Carduner. We welcome a new collaborating partner at the Poetry Foundation, Meaghan Winston, to the PoemTalk community. To watch video recordings of talks by Kerry, Josh, and Kristen — during the twentieth-year celebration at the Writers House — click here. Photo above, at left: people line up for a free breakfast provided by the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Kensington, July 2014 (photo credit: Ron Tarver.) Above, at right: Michael Magee.