Charles Olson, 'Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)'
Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein converged on Al’s office-studio to attempt what Al in his intro dubs a “daunting” task — to talk somehow about one of Charles Olson’s Maximus poems in such a way that would make the poem make sense and might serve as a good introduction to The Maximus Poems more generally. We don’t know if we succeeded but we certainly had fun trying. We chose a poem for which PennSound has two recordings, one made at the August 1963 Vancouver Poetry Festival and another made in Boston in 1962. As listeners will learn from episode 34 here, we also discovered that someone has made a YouTube video clip from a segment of the film about Olson, Polis Is This. In this segment, Olson reads the poem with what Rachel calls choreographic gestures, motions that continually point up the forward/backward, in-body/away planes or zones of geographic understanding. We happily add, below, a link to this remarkable but probably — most of us would agree — overdone performance.
The title of that film comes from the memorable final line of our poem, “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld),” the last parenthetic term here referring to the fact that it was excluded from the first major collection of Maximus Poems, The Maximus Poems of 1960. Excluded but then apparently much in demand and/or much admired by Olson himself.
The poem, especially at the start (in which a family anecdote is told), seems personal and almost (in the term then popular) “confessional.” But, as the PoemTalkers put it, it soon begins to do the usual Maximus thing, engaging a vortexical historical method line by line, and gesturing hugely at the convergences of geography and culture across eras and the (at turns) triumphant and lamentable westwardness of everything.
Here is the text of the poem. Here is the PennSound recording of the poem from a reading given in Boston in 1962.
Our episode was edited as usual by Steve McLaughlin, and, as always, PoemTalk was produced and hosted by Al Filreis in collaboration with the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation.
Sharon Mesmer, 'I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington'
Kenneth Goldsmith, Nada Gordon and Steve McLaughlin gathered in Al’s office/recording studio at the Kelly Writers House to talk about Sharon Mesmer’s flarfy gem, “I Accidentally Ate Some Chicken and Now I'm in Love with Harry Whittington.”
The recording we used was made at the Writers House in February of 2007, at a mini Flarf Poetry Festival organized by our own Steve McLaughlin. We’re pretty sure that the poem was first posted to the flarflist – a listserv of flarf practitioners (and a few nonpracticing advocates) that serves as a medium for trying out all sorts of improvisational and quasi-improvisational poetic “bottom-feeding” (to use Kenny G.’s positive phrase). Is flarf poetic, non-poetic or anti-poetic, or, anyway, what combination is it of those three? That turns out to be the crux of our discussion. What “poetic” elements and devices does Mesmer retain and employ, and to what effect? Gary Sullivan originally defined flarf writing as, among other things, “corrosive,” and when Al asks the group whether Mesmer’s poem is corrosive, a fascinating discussion ensues: in part, we seem to move away from Sullivan’s notion. And since this is a poem, at least at first (at least superficially [superficially?!]) about Harry Whittington, the man Dick Cheney shot during a boondoggling hunting trip in Texas, it seems reasonable to ask about the political meaning or import of the piece.
The answer is hardly straightforward. At one point Steve pulls out the smoking gun (as it were), proving that Sharon Mesmer took most of the poem verbatim from Internet sources. And what about taste? Al puts it straight to Kenny, who has sometimes argued that one conceptual work is effective, while another work is not--the key being, the quality of choice of of concept. So what, Al asks, is the role of aesthetic distinction and valuation? Nada adds some possibly quite relevant biographical information, so we are led to ponder: What does Mesmer’s family of blood-on-apron butchers and her own principled vegetarianism have to do with the politics of the poem – its critique of a culture in which everything, actually and figuratively, tastes like chicken? It is, of course, a culture that includes this poem and makes it entirely (and specifically) possible.Here is Sharon Mesmer's PennSound author page, and here is a direct link to a recording of the poem. Here is a link to one of Mesmer's internet sources.
Our engineer and director for this program was James LaMarre.
(At left, Nada Gordon, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Stepehn McLaughlin)
Emily Dickinson's 'My Life had stood…' and Susan Howe's 'My Emily Dickinson'
Jennifer Scappettone, Marcella Durand and Jessica Lowenthal joined Al Filreis for a discussion of Susan Howe’s understanding of a crucial and extraordinarily complex poem by Emily Dickinson — the one that begins“My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun.”
My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners--till a Day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods--
And now We hunt the Doe--
And every time I speak for Him--
The Mountains straight reply--
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow--
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through--
And when at Night--Our good Day done--
I guard My Master's Head--
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow--to have shared--
To foe of His--I'm deadly foe--
None stir the second time--
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye--
Or an emphatic Thumb--
Though I than He--may longer live
He longer must--than I--
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--
Attempts to read and understand the poem form a central analytical narrative, or, one is tempted to say, a viscerum in and through Susan Howe’s book My Emily Dickinson. Our group not only took a cue from Howe’s sense of the poem’s centrality; we used the recording of Howe’s reading of the poe — and several passages from her book — as our basis and starting point. The recording comes from Charles Bernstein’s interview with Howe for his LineBreak series; the entire series is available through PennSound.
Jen Scappettone’s comments help us contemplate Howe’s working out Dickinson’s sense of the way war enters the details of domestic existence. Al presents the extended conceit (the woman is to the man as a gun is to its hunter-owner) and then the four proceed — immediately — to complicate it, aptly. The gendering, Marcella and Jessica remind us, is not at all straightforward. Among the many questions pondered here: How do we know for certain that the gun is gendered female?
Dickinson offered several variant words. One of these is “art,” which might have replaced “power.” “For ‘art’ you need an artist,” Marcella notes, “the creative power. Can the gun be the artist? Do artists extend power? What was the role of the artist or writer in America?” We listen to Howe (reading from her book) say, “When I love a thing, I want it and I try to get it.” Sounds to us, at least partly, like a predatory version of the subject-object dynamic. Jen adds: “Love brings the owner and the gun together, but also the predator and the prey.” Jessica speaks surely for all of us at PoemTalk when she says, in her final word, that she's glad to return to this crucial poem over and over.
Robert Grenier's 'Sentences'
Five hundred cards in a box: on each is typewritten a few words or phrases of poetic writing. This is Robert Grenier’s Sentences. Al gathered Joseph Yearous-Algozin, Jena Osman, and Bob Perelman to talk about this complex work. As Jena notes several times, there’s something odd about producing an audio discussion about a oral reading or performance by Grenier from a work that was and is so closely associated with a material text-object. A text-object that indeed has become famously central to people’s response to the writing in it. So one question immediately is on that count: by performing the work (and by doing so with such comic pleasure, and even, at times, with such schtickiness), is Grenier signaling to us that our focus on the object is misleading — that Sentences is meant to be always somewhat and variously unmoored from the codex book and the normally printed-on-page poem? All the PoemTalkers, led by Bob, want to discuss in some way how and why Robert Grenier always forces us to think about the most fundamental qualities and definitions of poetry. And surely this is good in itself.
In October 2006 Charles Bernstein interviewed Grenier for the “Close Listening” program. During that discussion Grenier reads from and discusses a few of the cards from Sentences, including “Bird / I wonder if I do,” a representation of birdsong that occupies the PoemTalkers for a few minutes and causes Bob Perelman to look back on his own critical effort to comprehend Grenier. In the second of a two-part interview with Grenier, Al, Charles, and Michael Waltuch discuss the actual construction of Sentences, a project in which Waltuch played a role. If you listen to the interview you’ll get to hear Waltuch and Grenier talk together about that moment.
The remarkable performance of a selection of cards from Sentences that serves as the basis of our PoemTalk discussion was given at the Poetry Project, at St. Mark’s Church, in New York, in April 1981. PennSound’s Grenier author page includes a full recording of that reading. One of the two excerpts featured in PoemTalk, the one beginning “CONCEPTS / they see us,” has been made available as an excerpt also on Grenier’s PennSound page.
Whale Cloth Press has made a full edition of Sentences available on the web. And the folks at Whale Cloth have also provided photographs of the original box.
PoemTalk’s director and engineer for this show is Steve McLaughlin and our editor is also (as always) Steve McLaughlin. In PoemTalk #32 we take on Susan Howe’s Emily Dickinson — in specific: Dickinson’s “My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun.” Stop back in a few weeks for that episode.