A space only you can build (PoemTalk #62)

Charles Alexander, 'Near or Random Acts'


Charles Alexander joined others in Philadelphia in the early autumn of 2001 to celebrate Gil Ott, poet and maker of many important books of poems through his Singing Horse Press. Alexander, whose Chax Press owes a good deal to Ott’s work and persevering spirit, simply had to be there, notwithstanding the hassle of cross-country air travel during those early post-9/11 days. He arrived a day or two early and gave a pre-celebration reading at the Writers House, trying out some very new poems that seemed, in part, inspired by responses to the September 11 attacks. He had begun a long poem in many sections to honor his daughters, and these later became the book Near or Random Acts, published by — you guessed it — Singing Horse Press.

Reaching 35 years of age, the father of two young children, Alexander had decided to constrain his writing about daughter Nora, then 7 years old, through a 5x7 (5x7=35) structure: 5 words in a line, 7 lines in section – the numbers referring thus to the phases of life of both poet and beloved addressee. In early September his progress on the Nora poems was suddenly stopped by “non-poetic doings” (as Al Filreis puts it in the introduction to this PoemTalk), and when Alexander returned to the series he keenly felt the need of additional constraints. The first poem in the series written after 9/11 added a third and rather severe limitation: first initials of each word in each line in the 5x7 form would now have to spell T O W E R. For instance: “Try our waffles early riser.” A few songs later we find the dad attending to his daughter again, now at a girls’ soccer game. Then, later, in 66, we reach a seven-line remembrance of a pre-9/11 raspberry-picking excursion, an idyllic late-summer outing that had been reported in an earlier section. So by this point what Ron Silliman calls “the raspberry suite” of Near or Random Acts sections has begun and ended with that ordinary but memorable dad/daughter experience.

Al Filreis brought together Mark Nowak, Ken Jacobs and the aforementioned Ron Silliman to talk about this suite of sections of a book Ron calls, in the end, a masterpiece. (Each of Alexander’s books, Ron says, launches a “dramatic and complete project.” Alexander has a special “relationship with each work as a project” that Ron finds personally instructive.) Ken notes that our choice of this particular group of sections from the long poem — sections 56 through 66 — discloses a theme that is just one of several running throughout the volume. Yet, he adds, this particular theme is powerful and central to the work: the thin, inexpressible boundary separating domestic and public lives, the crossing of which threatens the intimacy and joy of a parent’s protective private embrace of his daughter in a time of political anxiety. Looking back to the sections immediately preceding the crisis, Ken finds section 56 – the first raspberry canto – full of “horrific foretelling.” Mark, pondering Alexander’s line “never such a thing as return” (57), remarks on the reader’s realization here of the father’s sense that one “can’t go back to innocence.” The furious dramatic irony created is unlike that in most post-9/11 writing, for here again was a project already underway (even with its reference to a “plane” in the last pre-9/11 section): the writer of those sections experienced the calm of not-knowing in a way readers, coming later, simply cannot. We simply come upon a man out with his child, picking berries. “The space that only you can build” in canto 60, which Alexander re-reads with great emotion a decade after the crisis, in 2012, bespeaks the poet’s hope for his poem: that it will stand as a convergence of paternal and civic legacy, a future message to its addressee, then too young to know. The poem, with its many nods to children’s verse and at the same time its indebtedness to the quasi-nonintentional chance writing of Jackson Mac Low, is designed to be just such a space, the hoped-for republic of random yet near (intimate, close) words.

PennSound’s Charles Alexander page includes several readings of Near or Random Acts, each of which is segmented so that one can listen poem by poem. For more about the Gil Ott celebration, including links to recordings, click here. PoemTalk was recorded and engineered this time by Chris Martin, produced by Al Filreis, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin. PoemTalk is a collaboration of PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, and the Poetry Foundation. We at PoemTalk wish to honor the memory of Gil Ott, to celebrate the ongoing work of Chax Press, and to thank Charles Alexander for taking time during the summer of 2012 to re-record, so feelingfully, all of the Nora sections of his book.  (Pictured above, from left to right: Ron Silliman, Ken Jacobs, Mark Nowak.)

P. Inman and Dan Farrell, PhillyTalks

Dan Farrell (left), P. Inman (right)


Amaris Cuchanski hosts the twenty-second podcast in the PennSound Podcasts series. This includes a brief introduction, followed by a 21-minute excerpt from the conversation between P. Inman and Dan Farrell that took place at the Kelly Writers House on November 29, 1999, the 14th PhillyTalks event curated by Louis Cabri and technically produced by Aaron Levy. Click here for the entire recording, including links to audio segmented by poem; you'll also find a link to a PDF copy of the program that had been distributed by Cabri before the event.

Kyger and Creeley

Talking casually with Greg Hewlett, 1972

PennSound podcast number 21 features a 17-minute excerpt from a one-hour-and-23-minute recording of a conversation among Greg Hewlett, Robert Creeley and Joanne Kyger in June of 1972. The whole discussion — and links to segments by topic — are available at PennSound’s Joanne Kyger page. Your host is Amaris Cuchanski. The other twenty PennSound podcasts are available here.

I can't get started (PoemTalk #61)

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.

Chris Martin was our recording engineer for this episode, and Steve McLaughlin, who is the co-director of PennSound Radio among other things, was our editor, as always.

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.”

Signature Song
Bunny Berigan first recorded “I Can’t Get Started”
with a small group that included Joe Bushkin, Cozy Cole
and Artie Shaw in 1936.
Earlier that same year, the song,
written by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke,
and rendered as a duet patter number by Bob Hope and Eve
Arden, made its debut on Broadway in The Ziegfeld Follies
By 1937, when Berigan re-recorded it in a big-band setting,
“I Can’t” had become his signature song, 
even though, within a few months, Billie Holiday would record
her astonishing version backed
by Lester Young and the rest of the Basie Orchestra.
Lovers for a time, Lee Wiley and Berigan began appearing
together on Wiley’s fifteen-minute CBS radio spot,
Saturday Night Swing Club, in 1936.
Berigan died from alcoholism-related causes on June 2, 1942.
Although “I Can’t Get Started” is perfectly suited to Wiley’s
deep phrasing and succinct vibrato, she recorded the ballad only
once, informally, in 1945, during a Town Hall performance date.
The Spanish Civil War started in 1936 and ended in 1939
with Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s forces entering Madrid.

“I’ve settled revolutions in Spain” goes Gershwin’s lyric, just as odd.

Two very different Cageans

Jena Osman and Kenneth Goldsmith in conversation

Jena Osman, John Cage, and Kenneth Goldsmith


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.