Cut from the same tongue (PoemTalk #57)

Gregory Djanikian, 'Armenian Pastoral, 1915'


When Gregory Djanikian’s book, So I Will Till the Ground, was published in 2007, it was celebrated at the Kelly Writers House. (Later a Writers House podcast was released to give a sense of the event.) Al Filreis gave an introduction (MP3) as did one of Djanikian’s students, Sam Donsky (MP3). Djanikian read the hilarious “Immigrant Picnic” (MP3), a poem from the part of the book dealing with the life of the poet's family after the genocide left many of his forebears dead and dispersed the rest to places like Alexandria, Egypt, where our poet was born. Most of the book, indeed, deals with the effects many decades later of the Armenian genocide (or “Meds Yeghern,” the great calamity). But the first poems in So I Will Till attempt to represent mass killing. Among them is a poem Djanikian also read that night in 2007: “Armenian Pastoral” (MP3), the poem we discuss in this episode of PoemTalk.<--break-> It is more focused on the linguistic capacities of traumatic memory than any other poem in a book that is nonetheless full of consciousness about the relationship between genocide and naming.

At left, from left to right: Peter Balakian, John Timpane, Jamie-Lee Josselyn. To discuss this poem, and more generally the problems attending the making of verse “about” genocide, PoemTalk brought together Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who has helped teach a course on representations of the holocaust for many years; John Timpane, poet and editor of the commentary page at the Philadelphia Inquirer; and Peter Balakian. Balakian’s own story of a poet's life grappling with the history and effects (and denials by others) of the Armenian genocide he has told in numerous books — in poetry and prose. 

We took advantage of Peter’s trip to Philadephia (from Hamilton, New York, where he teaches at Colgate University), and organized a poetry reading that took place just a few hours after we recorded this episode of our podcast. The entire audio recording (MP3) is available at the Kelly Writers House site (here). This episode of PoemTalk was convened and produced by Al Filreis, as always, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

Flarf poetry festival at the Writers House

Readings by Sullivan, Smith, Mesmer and Nichols

Gary Sullivan and Sharon Mesmer


Former Kelly Writers House mainstay Mike Magee organized a Flarf Poetry Festival at the House in February 2007. The festival, which was a part of the MACHINE reading series and was cosponsored by Combo Arts Providence, featured seven prominent Flarf practioners who shared their inappropriate, odd, disturbing, and hilarious works. Gary Sullivan, one of the founders of this avant-garde poetry movement, has said that Flarf can be defined as “A quality of intentional or unintentional ‘flarfiness.’ A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness. Wrong. Un-P.C. Out of control. ‘Not okay.’” Sullivan has also said that Flarf is a verb meaning “to bring out the inherent awfulness, etc., of some preexisting text.” Mike Magee’s take on the movement is slightly different — he conceives of Flarf as a “collage-based method which employs Google searches, specifically the partial quotes which Google ‘captures’ from websites.”

In this podcast — which also features an excerpt from the Flarf Poetry Festival — Al Filreis relates the origin story of the Flarf movement. According to Kasey Mohammed, the author of the book-length Flarf project Deer Head Nation, the movement began in 2000, when Sullivan submitted a deliberately bad poem, “Mm-hmm,” to Poetry.com, a vanity website that lures unsuspecting, apsiring poets with lavish praise of their work and then offers to publish it for an exorbitant fee. Poetry.com did publish Sullivan’s poem; he then shared the poem with a poetics listserv, whose members (Kasey Mohammed, Nada Gordon, and Drew Gardner among them) wrote more Flarf.

Stephen McLaughlin, then an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, introduced the Flarf Poetry Festival. This podcast features McLaughlin’s introduction and readings by Gary Sullivan, Rod Smith, Sharon Mesmer, and Mel Nichols. The full recording of the event is available on PennSound.

Into the Field: Maureen Thorson

Maureen Thorson is a poet, publisher, graphic designer, and trade lawyer living in Washington, D.C. Her first book is the haunting and hilarious Applies to Oranges (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), recently reviewed in Jacket2. She has also written several short collections, including the PDF chap Twenty Questions for the Drunken Sailor (Dusie/flynpyntar press, 2008). Maureen is the poetry editor for Open Letters Monthly and co-curates the In Your Ear reading series at the D.C. Arts Center. She ran the Big Game Books imprint from 2006 to 2009, under which she published dozens of tinysides and chapbooks.  You can find more of Maureen’s work and get in touch at reenhead.com.

Without house and ground (PoemTalk #56)

Charles Reznikoff, 'Salmon and red wine' & 'During the Second World War, I was going home one night'

Charles Reznikoff


Peter Cole, Michelle Taransky, and Henry Steinberg join Al Filreis in this episode of PoemTalk to discuss two poems by Charles Reznikoff. One poem is something of an ars poetica, even though, as Peter points out, its status as metapoetry makes it an unusual effort at statement for Reznikoff, who wrote more often as he did in our second poem, which tells of — and apparently means — only what it is and tends to resist larger conclusion.<--break->

The first poem is known as “Salmon and red wine” and it appears as section 23 of Inscriptions. The second poem is known also by its first line, “During the Second World War, I was going home one night,” and it is section 28 of part 2 of a series called By the Well of Living and Seeing — a work published in 1969 in a book that brought together that series along with The Fifth Book of the Maccabees. The recording we discuss of the first poem was made at the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University in 1974, although it was written sometime between 1944 and 1956. The recording of the second poem was made when Reznikoff appeared as a guest on Susan Howe’s radio program in 1975. It is a memory of the 1940s.

“Salmon and red wine” appears in Inscriptions (p. 233) with an epigraph the four PoemTalkers discuss but which in our recording Reznikoff omitted for some reason. Here is the text of the epigraph: Thou shalt eat bread with salt and thou shalt drink water by measure, and on the ground shalt thou sleep and thou shalt live a life of trouble … — and the reference Reznikoff then gives is: Mishnah, Aboth 6:4.

The obviously important term “ground” here (and its reappearance in a different context in the poem itself) gives us plenty to discuss. “Those of us without house and ground”: who indeed are they?  Are they people of the diaspora?  Because “a writer of verse” is said here to require a diet of fasting and measures of water, Al — and to some extent, Michelle and Henry — wonders if the poem affirms dispossession (“without ground”) and wandering (“keep our baggage light”) as a status of necessary suffering for the sake of the modern poetic imagination. Al asks if such an understanding of the poem is “crazy” and Peter takes him up on the suggestion — it is “crazy,” says Peter — whereupon he proceeds to lead us through a discussion of how Reznikoff “is introducing poetry to a place where other people didn’t see poetry” as a function of the Mishnah’s hypergenerous offering of rules and laws and formal guidance on every quotidian act and contingency. “There’s a frame,” observes Peter of Reznikoff’s almost “conceptualist” approach.  “The frame is called poetry. Everybody’s looking for it over here where ‘outlast’ and ‘blast’ rhyme. But [Reznikoff]’s saying, ‘No, no, no. Just move the frame,’ as he does in ‘the Second World War.’ And suddenly [poetry is] just ordered in a certain way.”

Al does not disagree but continues to push, seeing the Second World War poem as having something of an unconscious — a hidden or modestly suppressed knowledge of that which is not being said about loss when a Jewish poet in wartime New York City finds himself wandering into an Italian neighborhood and encounters a shopkeeper whose son has been sent to the front and who worries he’ll never return. What comparatively horrific losses are not being worried over?  “We’re left to want to understand the gesture,” contends Al — when, later, the son is home safe and the shopkeeper gifts the poet a large apple in response to his plainly kind inquiry about the family. Should we read the gesture of the apple as ironic or insufficient or innocently generous? In answer to this, Michelle Taransky brought forth her teaching (from that very afternoon) of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, and tells us: “I would assume that Reznikoff is not turning the apple-giving into a metaphor or a moment. He’s just saying it happened. It happened just as this other thing that I didn’t write about happened.” And further: “This is just an overheard bit of conversation in the snow of conversation in New York, and Reznikoff, though he is asserting the ‘I’ here, is not saying that I’m the important ‘I’ or that I’m the only ‘I’ but that I’m an ‘I’ and this is another ‘I,’ and we’re talking.”

This episode of PoemTalk was engineered by Chris Martin and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

PennSound pedagogy

Al Filreis draws poetic connections

Emily Dickinson and Rae Armantrout


When Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein founded PennSound in 2003, one of their impetuses was purely pedagogical. They wanted to make a digital audio archive of free, downloadable files of poets reading their own work and of discussions about poetics available to teachers and learners looking to parse out poetic lineages and differences.

As Al Filreis explains in this 2007 podcast, PennSound is an archive for those seeking to make aesthetic connections between different poetic trends: a site of convergence for the reader (in this case, listener) and the poetic tradition. This makes PennSound a particularly useful resourse for teachers who are looking to demonstrate to their students the relationships between contemporary poetry and earlier poetic movements.<--break->

If a teacher were seeking to explain how Emily Dickinson’s nonsequential, fragmentary poetics is palpable in the work of Language poet Rae Armantrout, he or she need look no further than Armantrout’s PennSound author page. There, the teacher would find a recording of Armantrout reading her stunning poem of found language “The Way,” as well as a Close Listening conversation between Armantrout and Charles Bernstein in which Armantrout explicates the poem’s lingusitic origins, pronoun problems, and line breaks.

Both of these recordings are featured at the end of this podcast, which Al Filreis uses to remind PennSound listeners, new and old, of the archive’s mission and breadth. Indeed, at the time this podcast was recorded, PennSound was host to some 8,000 recordings, including a number of first-generation American modernists (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams) reading their work; Allen Ginsberg reading from Howl at San Francisco State University in 1956; and David Wallace reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry. PennSound was then working towards a goal of comprehensiveness that it continues to strive for now, as it acquires more recordings that elucidate lineages and serve as pedagogical tools.