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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.
Fred Wah, 'Race, to go'
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.
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.”
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Jeremy James Thompson is a renaissance man of the poetic arts: writer, publisher, printer, designer, teacher, and all-around organizer. On his website The Autotypograph, you can find his imprint Auto Types Press and his blog Autotypist, as well as a thorough list of his other projects and accomplishments. Thompson is also an elite bartender and mixologist, which we touch on in our conversation. We spoke on a broiling July day in New Orleans, where he moved last summer after spending several years in New York City.
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Souvankham Thammavongsa is a poet who lives and works in Toronto. Her parents were raised in Laos, and she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1978. Thammavongsa’s family moved to Canada when she was a year old. Her book Found (2007) describes these experiences, and was made into a short film by director Paramita Nath. Thammavongsa’s first book of poems is Small Arguments (2003). You can find her website here.
John Wieners, 'The Acts of Youth'
Ammiel Alcalay, Gary Barwin, and Danny Snelson joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem by John Wieners for which we at PennSound have two recordings. The version used as the basis of this PoemTalk discussion was part of a brief two-poem performance at the Poetry Project in New York, in 1990. (He also read "Confidence" that day.) “The Acts of Youth” was written in the early 1960s and published in Wieners's second book, Ace of Pentacles, in 1964.
So here was a late performance of an early poem — a poem, it turns out, that Wieners constantly revised.
What of the second recording of the poem? Well, it had been somewhat buried — if that's the apt term — inside a long recording made by Robert Creeley and given to the PennSound staff by Will Creeley in a box of many reel-to-reel tapes. Wieners had visited Creeley’s ENG 1670 course at Harvard in 1972; the fabulous instructor, sensing the rarity of the occasion, had the characteristic presence of mind to make a recording. The sound quality isn’t perfect, even after digital conversion and enhancement, but one can clearly hear Creeley and Wieners as they try to remember the poem Wieners had earlier mentioned he'd want to recite for the students. This was, of course, “The Acts of Youth.” As Danny Snelson remarks during the PoemTalk discussion, the two readings, that of 1972 and that of 1990, are just about as distinct as could be. In ‘72 Wieners held to the lineation as indicated on the printed page. By ‘90 he was running through every stop sign in a literally breathless performance.
Gary Barwin took the broken meter of the second performance quite seriously, and as a musical exercise — to help him discern the actually quite consistent beat of what must have seemed at St. Mark’s that day an improvisation based on the end-of-tether-ish way Wieners was feeling — Gary put some persistent sound behind the Poetry Project recording. In the PoemTalk show you can hear an excerpt from this, but Al promised that we would give access to the whole thing, so here it is.
Listeners will readily grasp Ammiel Alaclay’s special attachment to the life and work of John Wieners. Which is to say (among other things), Ammiel knew Wieners for many years and his various comments on this remarkable personage provide surely one of the highlights of the PoemTalk series.
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1. The visit to Creeley’s Harvard class produced a conversation worthy of close study. There’s an 8-minute discussion of the poetry of affect and its relation to the impetus for writing. Then there’s a 3-and-half-minute discussion of Amiri Baraka. and 17 minutes on “homosexuality in poems” and related matters.