Bill Berkson, 'Signature Song'
Marci Nelligan, David Kaufmann, and Thomas Devaney joined Al Filreis to discuss what David thinks might well be one of Bill Berkson’s own signature songs; during our discussion, David opines that Berkson’s poem “Signature Song” is the best of the poet’s “fact poems.” Marci and Tom certainly did not disagree with that judgment. Its diction and tone are mostly that of familiar factistic subgenres: the liner note, the encylopedia entry, etc. Finally, of course, it’s more than merely encyclopedic, for it wanders around both historical and personal connections and interleavings, and concludes with a quiet but still jarring judgment of the “odd” work of writing through these associations in and out of the extremity of political situations they somewhat ignore and somewhat express.
The poem gives its own historical and audiographical basis, so we needn’t do much here in the way of providing notes. The poem is itself such a note! Listen to Berkson’s PennSound readings of the poem and read the text below. Yet we can here add a link to a 1937 recording of Bunny Berigan performing his signature song, “I Can't Get Started,” with its long-mounting intro and late-arriving lyrics. In this version Berigan himself sings the vocals, but Berkson’s assemblage of the song’s audiographic nexus evinces a keen interest in Lee Wiley’s vocals and her brief emotional association with the ill-fated bandleader and — not quite — with the song that was his hallmark but which others have famously performed better.
In 2004 Berkson was interviewed by Carlos Villa on KUSF radio in 2004, and confirmed that “Signature Song” has to do “with a fascination with facts and how any one fact will connect one or more other facts in a very interesting way.” He noted that Lee Wiley is “one of my favorite singers,” and that as he wrote the poem he felt compelled to explore “the temporal connection with the Spanish civil war” (1936-1939), and only “then ... realized there was part of the lyric [in the Berigan song] about ‘settled revolutions in Spain.’” And was left wondering: What did Berigan really mean by the reference to Franco’s fascist counter-revolution? Yes, “the Spanish civil war was ‘settled’ [but] in what you and I would consider a negative way."
Our poem appeared in Berkson’s book Fugue State, published by Zoland Books in 2001. Within Fugue State it is placed in a section of 19 short poems titled “A Copy of the Catalogue.” PennSound’s Berkson page has two recordings of the poet reading this poem – one as part of the 2004 radio interview with Villa, and the second — the one we use for PoemTalk — comes from an October 2002 performance in the Segue Series at the Bowery Poetry Club.
David Bunn listened to this episode and sent us this helpful note: “I've just listened to the discussion of Berkson’s ‘Signature Song’ and went to Wikipedia (noting Al’s misgivings) to check the chronology of ‘I can't get started.’ According to Wikipedia the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (in which the song premiered) opened on 30 January 1936. Ira Gershwin must have written the lyrics in 1935. Franco's revolt began in July 1936. It is most likely that Gershwin is referring to Franco (not yet rebellious himself) putting down the Asturian miner’s rebellion of October 1934. The reference doesn’t exonerate Gershwin from making light of other peoples’ tragedies, but he’s not alone in that.”
“I’ve settled revolutions in Spain” goes Gershwin’s lyric, just as odd.
Jena Osman and Kenneth Goldsmith in conversation
On December 9, 2004, Al Filreis brought together two very different Cageans — Jena Osman and Kenneth Goldsmith — for a conversation with the students of his Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course. This was the first time that Osman and Goldsmith were recorded together, for beyond their shared interests in John Cage’s aesthetic and documentary poetics, they are very different poets. Osman is known for her disruptive, experimental poetics — collaging and intervening in existing texts — while Goldsmith’s works are defined by their uncreativity, where the texts are presented whole.
This podcast features a sixteen-minute excerpt of the Osman-Goldsmith event, edited by then-student Andy White. First, we hear from Goldsmith, explaining the hubub that resulted when his book Soliloquoy was first introduced. Soliloquoy is an unedited document of every word Goldsmith spoke during one week in 1996 (he wore a hidden, voice-activated tape recorder and transcribed the results). In the discussion that follows, Osman and Goldsmith hash out the political nature of language (“Language is just charged matter,” Goldsmith says), the presence of choice and intervention in the work of Cage and Jackson Mac Low, the inability of poetics to be truly uncreative, and the power of form and structure in poetry. The full recording of the event is available on PennSound.
Clark Coolidge, 'Blues for Alice'
Brian Reed (in from Seattle), Maria Damon (Minnesota), and Craig Dworkin (Utah) joined Al Filreis at the Writers House (Philadelphia) in a rare and — we think — rather fluid convergence of poetic minds prepped to figure out how to talk about an instance of verse bebop. The bop was Charlie Parker’s, as a model for languaged sound (by poet Clark Coolidge), and the template song was “Blues for Alice” (Coolidge’s poem uses the title), and among the possible Alices are Alice Coltrane, Alice Notley, and Alice in Wonderland. We speculate about Alice Coltrane and Alice in Wonderland, but as for Notley: Brian Reed finds evidence that Coolidge meant to dedicate his poem version of the standard bop dedication indeed to Notley. This leads Maria Damon to wonder about all these women dedicatees – these recipients or objects of blues syllabics — in light of such strong male performative struggles, or attempts to “get in on the try,” managed by creative men: Coolidge and Parker, or course, but perhaps Ted Berrigan too, and surely also Jack Kerouac, whose bop-inspired babble flow is very much part of the PoemTalk conversation. The key source for Coolidge’s working out of Kerouac is his important 1995 article published in American Poetry Review on Kerouac’s babble flow and his improvisation generally.
So let’s line up your sources for a full appreciation of this discussion. For especially studious PoemTalk listeners, we might even suggest that you reckon with these materials in this order. First, listen to one of the available recordings of Charlie Parker performing “Blues for Alice.” Then of course read Coolidge's poem (below and also here). Then read at least part of Coolidge’s essay on Kerouac. Then, finally perhaps, read Ron Silliman’s overview of the importance of Coolidge’s critical approach to Kerouac as an aid to our understanding of an “enormous sense of dedication to craft and to the idea that the meaning of form is intimately connected to what you can do with it”; Silliman is talking about Coolidge’s Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & the Sounds.
Or, alternatively, forget all those ancillary materials; maybe we should all critically “Step down off our whelm lessons.” Perhaps in the end PoemTalk’s 60th episode will serve best as a model for how the meaning of a poem consciously worded from improvised sound can be conveyed through a close reading of its sounds without the producers of such a reading ever shying away from biography, discography and the specific literary histories of influence.
Our engineer for this episode was Chris Martin and our editor, as always, is the incomparable Steve McLaughlin. We wish to correct information conveyed in the discussion: Rachel Blau DuPlessis was indeed the source of the reel-to-reel recording, which she held for many years and then gave to PennSound, whereupon it was digitally converted; she was part of the 1985 symposium at Temple University where Coolidge performed, but did not make the tape.
Paul Blackburn, '7th Game: 1960 Series'
Paul Blackburn performed his poem “7th Game : 1960 Series,” which had been written in 1960, on or near the first day of the 1971 baseball season, during a reading he gave at SUNY Cortland. The poem was later republished in Blackburn’s Collected Poems (here is a PDF copy). The New York Yankees (Blackburn’s team) were heavy favorites in their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and vastly outscored the underdogs in the seven games. But the Pirates won on a home run by a light-hitting second baseman in the final at-bat of the final game (what we now call a “walk off”). As Blackburn introduces the poem, the Cortland audience laughs; listeners to the audio-only recording now might be confused by this, but we think you can safely guess that Blackburn had just put on his Yankee cap.
Ron Silliman, Daisy Fried and Joel Lewis join Al Filreis to talk about this poem, and about Blackburn’s poetry generally. Ron looks closely at 1960 as a year during which Blackburn, usually prolific, wrote almost nothing, our poem being just one of a handful he produced. Is there anything in this poem that helps us understand its compositional context as a time of reticence? Joel contributes, among other things, a rather precise sociological reading of the Cortland student body of the moment the poem was performed, the politics of that moment, at the end of the Sixties, being relevant to the story of 1960 being told in its lines. Daisy discusses baseball as “a numbers game,” and observes the poem’s use of baseball’s numbers as ideational and peri-metrical markers — offering a poetics of a sort. All four talkers worked through the image of Fidel Castro, who struck us as an important figure here, although shadowy and subtextual. Castro was of course still very popular at the time the poem was composed, a threateningly attractive cultural force as well as a talented baseball player, and his final emergence coincides with the end of the imperial reign of the Yankee, who now must go home despite retaining much greater firepower than the light-hitting small-time opponents, among them an explosive, soon-dominant Caribbean, Roberto Clemente, whose proud subversion of the Yankees was more potent than that of the accidentally powerful Mazerowski. Reading out these political valences — and aren’t we always reading baseball allegorically? — it is hard to discern which side Blackburn is on. Our understanding of his celebration of the exclusive focus of the male New York fanatics, whose temporary obliviousness to the pretty young underage girls (“jailbait”) who pass them by, is complicated by the prospect of the gaze naturally returning to its focus once the dynasty has finally been destroyed. Is that a reason to cheer, not lament, the end of the Yankee? Is that a reason to stand on the Left either in ’60 or ’71?
Chris Martin was our engineer once again for this episode of PoemTalk, Al Filreis the show’s organizer and producer, and Steve McLaughlin, as ever, its one and only editor.
Bernadette Mayer, 'The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty'
Most of us who have read Bernadette Mayer's poem, “The Tragic Condition of the Statue of Liberty,” encountered it in Andrei Codrescu's anthology American Poetry since 1970: Up Late (1987), where it was joined by her “Laundry & School Epigrams” (written in the same spirit) and eight of her other poems. PennSound’s recording of “The Tragic Condition” comes from an Ear Inn reading that took place in October of 1988.
As we note from the start, the poem’s subtitle is “A Collaboration with Emma Lazarus” and it begins by appropriating lines 10 through 14 of the famous Lazarus sonnet, “The New Colossus” — lines spoken by the giant statue, the “Mother of Exiles” that now stands in the harbor of New York, Mayer’s own beloved wretched town. Here is Lazarus, the appropriated lines in italics:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
PoemTalk this time was experted engineered by Chris Martin, produced by Al Filreis, co-sponsored by the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, PennSound, the Kelly Writers House and the Poetry Foundation — and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.