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The value of a pronoun (PoemTalk #54)

Ron Silliman, 'You'

Ron Silliman, visiting the kitchen of the Kelly Writers House, wears Phillies red.

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It’s 1995. January 1. Ron Silliman, who had carefully planned this daily yearlong writing project, begins to write the first of what will be fifty-two sections of a series going under the title “You.”<--break-> He worries about the war in Chechnya, and writes a sentence on that, and about acid rain, and that gets a sentence. He remembers his dreams. He overhears intellectual coffeeshop talk. It’s cold outside.

This would be the twenty-fifth book of The Alphabet; in the Alabama edition of that major assemblage, twenty-five years in the making, “You” begins on page 903, a long way in. Fifty-two sections, one for every week of 1995, each consisting of seven daily prose paragraphs, typically one, two, or three sentences each day. You write what you see, what you overhear, what news local (floods) or world (wars) occurs to you or impresses you, what you remember, what you know or think you know during these days. In one “You” is the diary in New Sentences of a year. And it happens to have been a crucial annum for Silliman, who in ’95 made a big move from San Francisco to Philadelphia. In section XVII (by our count, this would have been early May), “You” marks the poet’s final week as a resident of the Bay Area. Certain birds (will you miss them?) wake him. Floppy disks might need to be copied (to secure files?) but aren’t. Would Philly be a haven for you, such a bookish person? “Last chance to buy books.” (Are there no good bookstores where you’re going?) “To the question, ‘Is your house lined with books,’ I reply. ‘No — stacked.’” Would the move from a region and a community that had productively tolerated — and also specifically encouraged — the emergence of a poetic style thwart or disorient the maker of these sentences? Section XVIII, dedicated to “Bob and Francie” (that would be Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw), locates Bay Area friends who’d gone East ahead of you. Despite such indications of continuity and familiarity — and despite the yearlong project that must go on, despite the chaos of relocation — you find a new landscape (“A cloudless sky but for the power plant. An old small town at the center of this development.”) and a certain new anxiety over aesthetic belonging. Can a so-called “Language poet” thrive in “P=H=I=L=A=D=E=L=P=H=I=A”?

The same Bob Perelman, the Language compatriot who had awaited you at that site almost at the other end of the continent, joined us, these years later, for an episode of PoemTalk about “You.” So did Rachel Blau DuPlessis, another longtime Philadelphia mainstay (to say the least). As did Frank Sherlock, a third Philadelphia poet, associated with the new PhillySound and someone who, with his local comrades, have welcomed Silliman — and whose work has been commended by Silliman on his eponymous blog. And the conversation was moderated this time by Michelle Taransky (a fourth Philly poet in the room), generous guest host, who sat in for Al Filreis while he was away.

The discussion considers in particular sections I and XII of the poem, but almost immediately sets out to offer general commentary on Silliman’s politics of form. In the myriad separate non-syllogistically arranged observations of “You” there is always apparent “a strong urgency of the anti-hierarchical,” as Rachel puts it. Parts are never gathered into a platonic whole, and this in itself can have a “social” and indeed “liberatory” aspect. Consider the second paragraph in section I, a paragraph presumably written on the second day of the year. January 2, 1995: “the idea of history shudders” as you absorb news of possibly genocidal convulsions “[i]n Grozny, in Bihac.” Here “You” “records” “world events” diary-like — ripped, as they say, from the daily newspaper. But then you seem to know of a thorny rose, laid upon a mass grave.[1] And then, but not of course sequentially, you see and overhear, in a café, two young men arguing “the value of a pronoun” over their strong coffee. The pronoun — is it the poem’s titular second person? the poet’s Recording Angel self? an abstract way of talking language without political consciousness, like a linguist? — does not separate from, nor subordinate to, history’s shudderings. No more or less relevant. You are not there to judge (nor to subjectivize — other than to be the one on that day to observe it) the café argument about language just because it occurs in a time of war engaged elsewhere. After all, who knows but that in the non-transparent concept of “you” — not the selfhood of I but the difference of Other — lies an effective understanding of the world’s crises?

At a PhillyTalks event, just a few years after Silliman became a Philadelphian, he read sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 17, 19, and 23 of “You.” Here is a complete recording of that January 1998 event at the Kelly Writers House. Later, in 2000, at a Segue Series reading, he read sections 17, 18, 26, 38, and 52. (Here is that recording; the reading from “You” starts at around three minutes in.) Here is our recording of section I: MP3. And here is section XII: MP3. All of this audio, and more, is available at Silliman’s vast PennSound page.

PoemTalk’s producer for this episode was, as always, Al Filreis, and our editor was, as always, Steve McLaughlin.

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1. This is prescient, indicating what a sensitive close reader of the newspaper Silliman is. It was not until June 2008 that a grave containing the remains of 800 people was found in Grozny and publicized by human rights organizations. Witnesses then were able to specify that the mass burial of civilians had begun on January 1 and 2, 1995.

Into the Field: Steve Evans

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Steve Evans is a critic and scholar of poetry and poetics, and a professor at the University of Maine in Orono. He helps run the National Poetry Foundation and directs the UMaine New Writing Series, for which hes hosted numerous visiting writers and scholars. Steve’s research often focuses on recorded poetry readings, and hes posted many of his personal favorites on his blog The Lipstick of Noise. His in-progress Jacket2 commentary series on related issues is titled The Phonotextual Braid. You can find more of Steve’s work — including his famed Attention Span survey series — at ThirdFactory.net. I recorded Steve at his home in Orono in August 2010.

Into the Field: Patrick Durgin

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I met up with Patrick Durgin at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches literature, writing, and critical theory. Patrick has published books and journals under the Kenning Editions imprint since 1998, during which time he’s lived in a number of poetry-rich locales: Iowa City, the Bay Area, Buffalo, Ypsilanti, and now the Windy City. In 2004 he earned his Ph.D. in the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program. Patrick’s latest book is The Route (Atelos, 2008), a collaboration with Jen Hofer. His essay “New Life Writing,” on the writing practices of Jackson Mac Low and Hannah Weiner, recently appeared in Jacket2.

Obscure things have already been said (PoemTalk #53)

Joan Retallack, 'Not a Cage'

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One day Joan Retallack decided it was time to discard some books and journals from her personal library. Among them were Martin Buber’s I and Thou; a collection of short stories by David Kranes (Utah Press, 1979) called Hunters in the Snow; a 1974 volume of poems by Richard Howard; a published interview with Rita Dove; 1981 issues of The Socialist Review and Georgia Review; an issue of the Chicago Review that included an important line of Dante; books of poetry by Maxine Kumin, Ai, Burt Hatlen and Thomas McGrath; a 1988 number of Gargoyle magazine in which was published a poem by Angel Gonzalez beginning “The most obscure things have already been said”; Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch; Explanation and Understanding by Georg Henrik von Wright (Cornell, 1971); and others. This act of elimination, which on the contrary turned out to be a recycling and an archiving, produced a poem she came to call “Not a Cage,” after John Cage. <--break- />

Here is what the poet wrote to a colleague about this work:

All the language in it is from books I was culling from the library. I made lists of sentences and phrases from beginnings and endings of books. I was culling a lot, so there were many more beginnings and endings on [my] yellow pad than ultimately went into the poem. I didn't change any words or orders of words within the units I drew from the books, but did decide the length of each. The poem was composed with a combination of chance and intuitive composition on my part. “Not a cage” was a phrase that happened to be at one of the critical sites in one of the books.

Retallack deemed the compositional process to be Cagean, surely, from the start, and yet she found “Not a cage” (in a poem by Richard Howard) using the procedure.  All the talkers this time — Danny Snelson, Jena Osman, and Jonathan Monroe — took this to be remarkable and instructive and (differently) pleasurable. Al Filreis and Danny derived special pleasure from the Google Books-enabled sleuthing that produced a nearly complete bibliography of the disappeared books and deemed such work to be just a further step along the path the poet had already traveled, she whose impulse was to do something archival to “assuage” the “guilt” she felt at the selection. Danny describes a desire to know. Jena observes that the questions have changed, largely because of emergent storage and search technologies, between 1990, the time of the poem, and now. "When she made this piece, it was a question of ‘What will happen if I do this? What coincidences will occur? What sense will be made that I cannot predict?’ And now, you come across something like this, and the question is ‘Where is it from?’” To which Danny replies: “Now there are so many more interesting things, such as [being able to discern] all the discrete little decisions that she makes. You can go back and see, for instance, that she quotes this whole line but breaks it in half.”

So Jena disagreed with Al’s inclination to do what amounts to a biographical (or bio-bibliographical) reading of the poem based on assumptions Al felt could be naturally made about what books the poets wanted to discard — and the desire to make something bona fide Cagean out of a mostly non-Cagean canon. What we make disappear bespeaks what we wish to be all the more present. And Jena disagreed with Danny’s approach, a close cousin to Al’s, which celebrates new capacities enabled by the digital super-archive that warrant a close dissection of procedure-directed choices of non-authorial texts.

Meantime, Jonathan set up an overlapping and yet distinct and challenging binarism — that of the “seminar” approach as distinct from the “workshop” approach to such a poem. He begins his point by pondering — and somewhat doubting the efficacy of — the act of close reading the poem’s enjambments. “Is that maybe more of a workshop question, in relation to reading this poem, than a seminar question? And my question would be more of a seminar question, a hermeneutic question of trying to construct some kind of gestalt of the poem as a whole, and an understanding of the poem as a whole.... I find myself especially recently wanting to encourage [in my students] a kind of distant reading, in a way, to back up from the poem. So I wonder, given the interest of the enjambment here: where do you go from there to an interpretation of the poem as a whole?” In her response, which PoemTalk listeners are encouraged to hear for themselves in the audio recording of our discussion, Jena urged us to consider the works of John Cage, noting that it would be hard to imagine “that paying attention to things that you might not pay attention to otherwise is not key. Cage is about close reading or close listening — or listening differently.” (Pictured above, left to right: Danny Snelson, Jena Osman, Jonathan Monroe.)

Here is the text of “Not a Cage.” PennSound’s Joan Retallack page includes two recordings of her performing the poem: one from a reading given at Buffalo in 1993, another recorded by Aldon Nielsen in 1991.

PoemTalk is produced by Al Filreis and is sponsored at the Kelly Writers House (special thanks to Michelle Taransky and Jessica Lowenthal), by PennSound (thanks to Charles Bernstein), the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (thanks to Mingo Reynolds and Chris Martin), and the Poetry Foundation (with thanks to Cathy Halley). Our show this time was engineered by Jeff Boruszak and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

Where the real exceeds the ideal (PoemTalk #52)

Cole Swensen, 'If a Garden of Numbers'

The Gardens of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte.

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Cole Swensen’s book Ours is a sequence of poems — or is perhaps best described as a poetic project. André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) was the principal gardener of King Louis XIV; he designed and led the construction of the park of the Palace of Versailles. The poems in Swensen’s book indicate a range of interests in Le Nôtre’s work and beyond, but his Gardens of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte are of special interest, and they are the topic of the poem we chose to discuss, “If a Garden of Numbers.”  The poem, and our talk about it, raised a number of compelling questions. Are historical research and the lyric compatible?

<--break- />(Yes, we agreed. But what are the varieties of integrating the two? And how does a scholarly methodology knowingly bespeak what was once super-elite art — namely, Le Nôtre's?)  Can the hyper-rational garden be truly “ours,” ever? (The master landscape designer's name is a pun on that possessive form of liberalism’s favorite pronoun from the French Revolution onward. This pun is a key to understanding Swensen’s poem and indeed the whole book.) If — to quote Swensen channeling Louis XIV — “it was an age that felt that nature could be corrected,” does such an urge extend to the formalities of poetry? If Le Nôtre “couldn't stand views that end,” what effect should that have on a poetics? The idea that the garden includes everything you can see from the garden has some kind of political valence: progressive if what’s beyond the garden can and must be welcomed in, if natural emigration is really possible (by virtue of its design, notwithstanding the exclusivity of its original patron); conservative if Le Nôtre's act of inclusion colonizes nature beyond its border. If the latter, then is form as a kind of artifice inherently conservative? Le Nôtre’s “jar in Tennessee” problem means that form takes dominion everywhere, even if the slovenly wilderness grows up all around it. One needn’t beat it back. One need only place the form in its midst. Finally: If art is an idea as distinct from nature, and if the “real exceeds the ideal,” then can a poem of ideas about nature be aligned with the real? We’re back to hyper-rationality. These gardens are beautifully excessive, and so — Swensen seems to contend, but arguably — they get at humanity because indeed they produce a version of reality rather than (merely) ideality. Subjectivity is affirmed. Every slight shift in perspective matters a great deal. The garden (the poem too?) is a way of making nature account for the mind.

Ann Seaton, Michelle Taransky, and Gregory Djanikian joined Al Filreis for this discussion. We went hard at all the questions enumerated above, expressing doubts about the progressive claim implicit in the pun on “ours.” We pondered the aesthetics and ethics of the garden that includes everything one can see from the garden. Annie offered a political reading, and the others responded, both agreeing and pressing back. Fortunately for us and for PoemTalk listeners, Cole Swensen was interviewed about this work by Leonard Schwartz for one of his “Cross-Cultural Poetics” shows, and so our varying interpretations can benefit from a rich context of resources and responses. Here, below, are relevant audio segments from that radio broadcast:

  1. introduction and discussion of the Le Nôtre gardens (5:12): MP3
  2. brief note on the style of “A Garden Is a Start” (1:40): MP3
  3. “A Garden Is a Start” (3:12): MP3
  4. discussion of the language of fact in poetry (8:05): MP3
  5. “Paradise” (0:56): MP3
  6. discussion of gardens as dominion over nature (2:43): MP3
  7. discussion of the geometry of the Le Notre gardens (3:38): MP3
  8. introductory discussion to “Versailles the Unfurled” (2:53): MP3
  9. “Versailles the Unfurled” (3:56): MP3
  10. dicussion of fountains and water as a public and private commodity (5:42): MP3
  11. “Keeping Track of Distance” (with a brief introduction) (1:40): MP3

During that same discussion, Swensen read our poem: MP3. The text of the poem is available at the Poetry Foundation site: text. Cole Swensen has responded to this episode of PoemTalk: here is a link to her note.

Max McKenna was our engineer for this episode of PoemTalk, and Steve McLaughlin was, as always, our editor.