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Writing through Ezra (PoemTalk #46)

Jackson Mac Low, 'Words nd Ends from Ez'

Jackson Mac Low, Ezra Pound

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PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard’s own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound’s lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII.  Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A  P O U N D.  Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more. <--break- />

Thus the poem’s commentary on Pound, its both aesthetic and ethical positioning with respect to Pound, is profounder than it might have been otherwise, had the poem been a “sincerely felt” subjective lyric response to the final Poundian ethos — an oscillation between stubborn repetition of earlier modes and mea culpa.

We couldn’t help thinking about John Cage’s writings through Pound in connection with this work. During this part of the discussion Joan Retallack said the following:

Mac Low admired Pound more than Cage did. One of the things that was, to me, so always intersting about the way Cage worked was that he thought out his procedures very carefully in advance, not so that he would know what was going to happen in the parts of the structure that would allow chance operations to choose the points, as he would put it, in the text, but because he knew the way you choose your procedure has a lot to do with extremely formal elements ultimately. He chose to let more of Pound in [more, that is, than Mac Low does based on his procedure in our poem] and this was ultimately more unpleasant for Cage because he didn't like the Pound. I think the reason to continue reading Pound and to continue the agonistic relationship we all have to have with Pound when we read [him] is that it is such a presentation of the complexities and the horrifying things that can happen to a mind that is going in directions that are passionate without empathy, without contact with others.

Notwithstanding the agonism, and a non-Freudian/non-Bloomian version of anxiety of influence, Pierre Joris takes us back to the great pleasure we derive from the performance of this poem, with its multilinguistic melodrama, its playfully exaggerated accents — perhaps part of the rejoinder to Pound as a matter of sense but perhaps, too, a result of the joy of bespeaking words extracted from the languages of The Cantos, mostly liberated from its topical tyrannies. “This is sound work that frees the poem from a heavy logos,” says Charles. “I think the important thing,” says Pierre, “is that it has to be heard first. And it has to be read aloud. ‘Hey read that. Get your mouth around it.’” And we agreed on the primacy of Mac Low’s performance as a somatic experience.

We are grateful to Joan Retallack and her colleagues at Bard College for arranging our recording session, and to the audience of some 40 students, faculty, and others who made up a positively responsive live audience for only the second time in PoemTalk’s run (the other was PoemTalk #10 on Stein). We also wish to thank James LaMarre, our longtime director-engineer, who travelled from Philadelphia to Annandale-on-Hudson to help us with the recording; and, as always, Steve McLaughlin, PoemTalk's original editor.

Poem going down the drain (PoemTalk #45)

Eileen Myles, 'Snakes'

Eileen Myles in October 2008. Photo by Annemarie Poyo Furlong.

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Eileen Myles wrote “Snakes” just as she was assigning children in a friend’s Provincetown poetry workshop to write a poem with the following not-so-constraining-seeming constraint: “Be any age and go down the drain with it.” Her poem, then, is something of a pedagogical model, an exercise in teaching by participation. Or perhaps the assignment she gave the students simply felt so alluring to her — befit her own aesthetic so well — that she couldn’t help but try it herself, regardless of her role as young writers’ guide.  This was in 1997 or so. By January 1998 she was reading the poem at the Ear Inn in New York. It was published in The Massachusetts Review also in 1998.<--break- />

Sarah Dowling, Michelle Taransky, and Charles Alexander (Charles was visiting from the Southwest, and delighted us with a poetry reading the same day) joined Al Filreis in Al’s studio office at the Kelly Writers House to discuss this poem. Charles had spoken with Eileen Myles before the recording and was able to confirm our hunch about the poem’s derivation from the workshop exercise. Then Charles wonders aloud: once we establish that specific motive or origin for the poem, we must ask what does putting something — let alone a poem — down the drain mean, and how does it manifest itself in the writing itself? Charles begins that part of our discussion by suggesting that it might be something akin to going down the rabbit hole.  Memory moving crossways and around — quick-cut fast and time-disordering slow at once.

Some kind of domestic memories (not surprising given the poem’s emergence out of the subject position of a six-year-old). Michelle Taransky hears and identifies domestic details, such that the going-down-the-drainness of the poem seems to connect us with a vortexical memory of the domestic situation in the child. Charles senses that the six-year-old seems mostly unaware of the loss.  Michelle notes the percussiveness of phrases varying from “I was 6,” and suggests that the poem is about a collision of perspectives: being the non-six-year-old (an adult teacher-poet “doing” six) and, in the present of the poem’s drained fiction, being persistently just six.

Al asks how much temptation there is to read the poem allegorically. Sarah responds by thinking through the importance of the snake. “I lost my snake,” she quotes. For her, the lost figure casts its curling shadow over the rest of the poem. Does the snake belong to the “I” (as a pet, it seems), the poem’s speaker at the beginning?  Okay, but then the snake seems also to be the “reptile child” we see toward the end. Sarah comes to believe that “Snakes” is about a domestic moment of loss. The loss of self, the loss of a daughter from a mother (the “I” with the husband?), the loss of the reptile-child self.  The group sees evidence in the poem that being six years old can convey a disempowering sensation in extremis. The repetition of “I am 6” is at times “silly” (also at times “comic booky”) but creates a sense of entrapped stupidity — a way of feeling in advance what it’s going to be like to be unsuccessful at being an adult. Al several times proffers an historical reading of the situation as specifically a Cold War-era domesticity; this is not so much taken up by the others as accepted as contributing to the overall heightened sense of feared big loss, tramping feet with music blaring at the end of the war, comic-book-sized quasi-allegory about runaway reptiles, domestication gone awry, etc.

James LaMarre was our director and engineer, while Steve McLaughin, as always, edited this episode.

Into the Field: Alejandro Crawford

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Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford is a poet and video artist of the first degree. I spoke with him in Athens, Georgia on a muggy July afternoon just over a year ago. These days Alejandro makes a living as a professional VJ, touring the world regularly with the band MGMT. You can see a bit of his work for them here, and Art21 Blog has recently posted a demonstration of his Vonome video organ. Collections of his videos can be found on Vimeo and YouTube. Alejandro’s poetry collection BHO is available on EOAGH, and his book Morpheu (BlazeVOX, 2009) can be purchased through Small Press Distribution.

Into the Field: Nick Montfort

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Nick Montfort is a writer and scholar specializing in digital poetics and computational media. He has a Ph.D. in computer and information science from Penn, and is currently an associate professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We discuss his most recent book, Riddle & Bind (Spineless Books, 2010), as well as his poetry generator series ppg256 and his early story “Kung Fu Christ.” You can find more of Nick’s work at nickm.com.

On the other side of the tracks (PoemTalk #44)

Fred Wah, 'Race, to go'

from left: Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, Bob Perelman, Fred Wah

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Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, and Bob Perelman joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem in a sixteen-poem series by Fred Wah going under the title “Discount Me In.” That series and several others were brought together in a book called Is a Door. Our poem, “Race, to go,” is the first — a proem of sorts — in the “Discount Me In” group, and we have occasion during our discussion to talk about the several valences of discounting. I don't count. The census misses me because I fall between the cracks in racial categories. The neo-liberal moment has cheapened me. Both positively and negatively racially charged language around food, freely punned and intensely oral, turns casual by-talk into rebarbative backhand (creating an effect distinctly pleasurable) and brings into the poem the entire story of official Canadian multiculturalism.

Race, to go
What’s yr race
            and she said
what’s yr hurry
how bout it cock
                                                        asian man
I’m just going for curry.
 
                        You ever been to ethni-city?
                        How bout multi-culti?
                       
                                        You ever lay out skin
                                        for the white gaze?
 
What are you, banana
or egg? Coconut
maybe?
                       
                            Something wrong Charlie
                            Chim-chong-say-wong-leung-chung?
                            You got a slant to yr marginal eyes?
 
You want a little rice with that garlic?
Is this too hot for you?
 
            Or slimy    or bitter    or smelly    or tangy    or raw    or sour
 
— a little too dirty
           
            on the edge    hiding underneath    crawling up yr leg    stuck
 
between the fingernails?
 
Is that a black hair in yr soup?
                        Well how you wanna handle this?
                         You wanna maintain a bit of différ-ence?
                         Keep or mother’s other?
                         Use the father for the fodder?
 
What side of John A. Macdonald’s tracks you on anyway?
 
                         How fast you think this train is going

                                                                                                                  to go? 

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Bob and Al, the Americans here, learned a few lessons about how different from the American melting-pot version of multiculturalism the Canadian approach has been, where there’s “a pseudo-maintenance of a piquant difference” (as Lisa Robertson put it).  Our poem pushes piquant playfully yet angrily hard, to the point where sanctioned everyday cultural practices connect to the larger failures of the neoliberal economy.

In Banff, in 2010, Fred Wah took the opportunity to read many of these poems and to discuss them with Charles Bernstein as part of the Close Listening series; this material is all available on Fred Wah’s page at PennSound. Here is a recording of Fred Wah reading “Race, to go.” Here is a related poem, “Count,” and here is “Mr. In-between.”