Articles - July 2012

Into the Field: Maureen Thorson

Maureen Thorson is a poet, publisher, graphic designer, and trade lawyer living in Washington, D.C. Her first book is the haunting and hilarious Applies to Oranges (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), recently reviewed in Jacket2. She has also written several short collections, including the PDF chap Twenty Questions for the Drunken Sailor (Dusie/flynpyntar press, 2008). Maureen is the poetry editor for Open Letters Monthly and co-curates the In Your Ear reading series at the D.C. Arts Center. She ran the Big Game Books imprint from 2006 to 2009, under which she published dozens of tinysides and chapbooks.  You can find more of Maureen’s work and get in touch at

Without house and ground (PoemTalk #56)

Charles Reznikoff, 'Salmon and red wine' & 'During the Second World War, I was going home one night'

Charles Reznikoff


Peter Cole, Michelle Taransky, and Henry Steinberg join Al Filreis in this episode of PoemTalk to discuss two poems by Charles Reznikoff. One poem is something of an ars poetica, even though, as Peter points out, its status as metapoetry makes it an unusual effort at statement for Reznikoff, who wrote more often as he did in our second poem, which tells of — and apparently means — only what it is and tends to resist larger conclusion.<--break->

The first poem is known as “Salmon and red wine” and it appears as section 23 of Inscriptions. The second poem is known also by its first line, “During the Second World War, I was going home one night,” and it is section 28 of part 2 of a series called By the Well of Living and Seeing — a work published in 1969 in a book that brought together that series along with The Fifth Book of the Maccabees. The recording we discuss of the first poem was made at the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University in 1974, although it was written sometime between 1944 and 1956. The recording of the second poem was made when Reznikoff appeared as a guest on Susan Howe’s radio program in 1975. It is a memory of the 1940s.

“Salmon and red wine” appears in Inscriptions (p. 233) with an epigraph the four PoemTalkers discuss but which in our recording Reznikoff omitted for some reason. Here is the text of the epigraph: Thou shalt eat bread with salt and thou shalt drink water by measure, and on the ground shalt thou sleep and thou shalt live a life of trouble … — and the reference Reznikoff then gives is: Mishnah, Aboth 6:4.

The obviously important term “ground” here (and its reappearance in a different context in the poem itself) gives us plenty to discuss. “Those of us without house and ground”: who indeed are they?  Are they people of the diaspora?  Because “a writer of verse” is said here to require a diet of fasting and measures of water, Al — and to some extent, Michelle and Henry — wonders if the poem affirms dispossession (“without ground”) and wandering (“keep our baggage light”) as a status of necessary suffering for the sake of the modern poetic imagination. Al asks if such an understanding of the poem is “crazy” and Peter takes him up on the suggestion — it is “crazy,” says Peter — whereupon he proceeds to lead us through a discussion of how Reznikoff “is introducing poetry to a place where other people didn’t see poetry” as a function of the Mishnah’s hypergenerous offering of rules and laws and formal guidance on every quotidian act and contingency. “There’s a frame,” observes Peter of Reznikoff’s almost “conceptualist” approach.  “The frame is called poetry. Everybody’s looking for it over here where ‘outlast’ and ‘blast’ rhyme. But [Reznikoff]’s saying, ‘No, no, no. Just move the frame,’ as he does in ‘the Second World War.’ And suddenly [poetry is] just ordered in a certain way.”

Al does not disagree but continues to push, seeing the Second World War poem as having something of an unconscious — a hidden or modestly suppressed knowledge of that which is not being said about loss when a Jewish poet in wartime New York City finds himself wandering into an Italian neighborhood and encounters a shopkeeper whose son has been sent to the front and who worries he’ll never return. What comparatively horrific losses are not being worried over?  “We’re left to want to understand the gesture,” contends Al — when, later, the son is home safe and the shopkeeper gifts the poet a large apple in response to his plainly kind inquiry about the family. Should we read the gesture of the apple as ironic or insufficient or innocently generous? In answer to this, Michelle Taransky brought forth her teaching (from that very afternoon) of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, and tells us: “I would assume that Reznikoff is not turning the apple-giving into a metaphor or a moment. He’s just saying it happened. It happened just as this other thing that I didn’t write about happened.” And further: “This is just an overheard bit of conversation in the snow of conversation in New York, and Reznikoff, though he is asserting the ‘I’ here, is not saying that I’m the important ‘I’ or that I’m the only ‘I’ but that I’m an ‘I’ and this is another ‘I,’ and we’re talking.”

This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Chris Martin and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

PennSound pedagogy

Al Filreis draws poetic connections

Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout


When Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein founded PennSound in 2003, one of their impetuses was purely pedagogical. They wanted to make a digital audio archive of free, downloadable files of poets reading their own work and of discussions about poetics available to teachers and learners looking to parse out poetic lineages and differences.

As Al Filreis explains in this 2007 podcast, PennSound is an archive for those seeking to make aesthetic connections between different poetic trends: a site of convergence for the reader (in this case, listener) and the poetic tradition. This makes PennSound a particularly useful resourse for teachers who are looking to demonstrate to their students the relationships between contemporary poetry and earlier poetic movements.<--break->

If a teacher were seeking to explain how Emily Dickinson’s nonsequential, fragmentary poetics is palpable in the work of Language poet Rae Armantrout, he or she need look no further than Armantrout’s PennSound author page. There, the teacher would find a recording of Armantrout reading her stunning poem of found language “The Way,” as well as a Close Listening conversation between Armantrout and Charles Bernstein in which Armantrout explicates the poem’s lingusitic origins, pronoun problems, and line breaks.

Both of these recordings are featured at the end of this podcast, which Al Filreis uses to remind PennSound listeners, new and old, of the archive’s mission and breadth. Indeed, at the time this podcast was recorded, PennSound was host to some 8,000 recordings, including a number of first-generation American modernists (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams) reading their work; Allen Ginsberg reading from Howl at San Francisco State University in 1956; and David Wallace reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry. PennSound was then working towards a goal of comprehensiveness that it continues to strive for now, as it acquires more recordings that elucidate lineages and serve as pedagogical tools.

Find the missing line (PoemTalk #55)

Jennifer Moxley, 'The Atrophy of Private Life'

Jennifer Moxley


On the chance that PoemTalk’s listeners are ever tempted to stop listening after the main conversation and before we “gather Paradise” (make recommendations), we urge you to stay through to the end of this episode in particular — at which point you will hear Cathy Eisenhower’s short list of Washington, DC, venues for readings and gatherings. And we’ll add, here, belatedly, our intention to travel soon down to DC for an on-the-road PoemTalk.<--break->

Yes, so Cathy Eisenhower joined us from DC, and Christopher Schmidt from New York, and Katie Price from just down the campus Walk – to talk about one of the prose poems in Jennifer Moxley’s 2007 book The Line. Moxley had previously authored Imagination Verses (Salt, 2003), The Sense Record and other poems (Salt, 2003), and Often Capital (Flood Editions, 2005) among other works. We took up The Line because it would seem to enable us to talk about the situation or state of the poetic line — the poetic unit of language, the aesthetic or politico-aesthetic lineage – and we chose “The Atrophy of Private Life” within that book because the meta-poetic sense of “the line” would have to be at best implicit and we wanted to push ourselves to consider a possible critique of the sorry or depressed state of contemporary private life as itself a kind of line (as in ideological line) in such a way that the three senses of “line” — (1) poetic unit, (2) aesthetic lineage, where a poet fits or doesn’t fit, and (3) political stance — might converge unevenly and uneasily yet revealingly.

Private life is becoming emaciated and “the sets of relations are very limited” (notes Cathy), and so aptly we are in “a house strewn with fashion magazines.” The piece contends, seemingly straight out, that the destruction of the poetical has been mostly caused by the fabulously rich. The poet  unmasks American bounty as actual impoverishment. Is Moxley really suggesting these things directly? Cathy says yes – and also no. “There’s a lot of switching going on — with ‘meaning’ and ‘money.’” If those two terms were “flipped,” adds Cathy, “I’m not sure it would matter that much.” [Below, from left to right: Cathy Eisenhower, Christopher Schmidt, Katie Price in PoemTalk’s garret studio.]

Chris is interested in the mask in the poem. In Marx, the commodity masks real relationships. So that is the leftist line (another “line”) Moxley nods at, and possibly contends, but she’s also troubled with the notion and trend of masking in poetry: the languaged or non-transparent selfhood of the writer apparently never discernible.  Doubt that much-accepted concept, Moxley explores didacticism as an alternative to and resistance to a certain dominant “fashion” in the world of poetry itself, not merely, in other words, in the world of the fabulously rich. In this way, say Chris and Katie both, the mask represents the poetics of surface at which Moxley clearly excels (through her own excellent training as a writer) but which she also regrets. (Is that regret the source of the “depression” we all sensed — as did reviewers — in The Line?) Katie adds that Moxley is suspicious of the image and the language becoming “almost too pleasurable.” A line can be pleasurable and through the pleasure derived from it seem to say one thing, and then (here’s the resistance) it can be seen as saying the opposite.

Our recording of Moxley’s performance of the poem comes from a November 2004 reading (prior to the publication of The Line) held in Brooklyn for “Radio Poetique.” And here is the text:

The Atrophy of Private LIfe

In the heavy fashion magazines strewn here and there around the house the photos of objects and people mouth the word “money,” but you, assuming no one wants you anymore, mishear the message as “meaning.” Arousal follows. The lives of the rich are so fabulous! The destruction of the poetical lies heavily on their hands, as on their swollen notion that we are always watching. There is nothing behind the mask. Nothing suffocating under its pressure, no human essence trying to get out.
       Awareness, always awareness. Don’t you see how these elaborate masks are turning you into a zombie? The private life is not for the eye but for the endless interior. It is trying to push all this crap aside and find the missing line. Nobody, least of all the future, cares about the outcome of this quest.
       It is easy to lose, through meddling or neglect, an entire aspect of existence. And sometimes, to cultivate a single new thought, you need not only silence but an entirely new life.

PoemTalk #55 was engineered by Chris Martin and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.