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.
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.
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.