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Steve Evans is a critic and scholar of poetry and poetics, and a professor at the University of Maine in Orono. He helps run the National Poetry Foundation and directs the UMaine New Writing Series, for which he’s hosted numerous visiting writers and scholars. Steve’s research often focuses on recorded poetry readings, and he’s posted many of his personal favorites on his blog The Lipstick of Noise. His in-progress Jacket2 commentary series on related issues is titled The Phonotextual Braid. You can find more of Steve’s work — including his famed Attention Span survey series — at ThirdFactory.net. I recorded Steve at his home in Orono in August 2010.
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I met up with Patrick Durgin at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches literature, writing, and critical theory. Patrick has published books and journals under the Kenning Editions imprint since 1998, during which time he’s lived in a number of poetry-rich locales: Iowa City, the Bay Area, Buffalo, Ypsilanti, and now the Windy City. In 2004 he earned his Ph.D. in the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program. Patrick’s latest book is The Route (Atelos, 2008), a collaboration with Jen Hofer. His essay “New Life Writing,” on the writing practices of Jackson Mac Low and Hannah Weiner, recently appeared in Jacket2.
Joan Retallack, 'Not a Cage'
One day Joan Retallack decided it was time to discard some books and journals from her personal library. Among them were Martin Buber’s I and Thou; a collection of short stories by David Kranes (Utah Press, 1979) called Hunters in the Snow; a 1974 volume of poems by Richard Howard; a published interview with Rita Dove; 1981 issues of The Socialist Review and Georgia Review; an issue of the Chicago Review that included an important line of Dante; books of poetry by Maxine Kumin, Ai, Burt Hatlen and Thomas McGrath; a 1988 number of Gargoyle magazine in which was published a poem by Angel Gonzalez beginning “The most obscure things have already been said”; Nuns and Soldiers by Iris Murdoch; Explanation and Understanding by Georg Henrik von Wright (Cornell, 1971); and others. This act of elimination, which on the contrary turned out to be a recycling and an archiving, produced a poem she came to call “Not a Cage,” after John Cage.
Here is what the poet wrote to a colleague about this work:
All the language in it is from books I was culling from the library. I made lists of sentences and phrases from beginnings and endings of books. I was culling a lot, so there were many more beginnings and endings on [my] yellow pad than ultimately went into the poem. I didn't change any words or orders of words within the units I drew from the books, but did decide the length of each. The poem was composed with a combination of chance and intuitive composition on my part. “Not a cage” was a phrase that happened to be at one of the critical sites in one of the books.
Retallack deemed the compositional process to be Cagean, surely, from the start, and yet she found “Not a cage” (in a poem by Richard Howard) using the procedure. All the talkers this time — Danny Snelson, Jena Osman, and Jonathan Monroe — took this to be remarkable and instructive and (differently) pleasurable. Al Filreis and Danny derived special pleasure from the Google Books-enabled sleuthing that produced a nearly complete bibliography of the disappeared books and deemed such work to be just a further step along the path the poet had already traveled, she whose impulse was to do something archival to “assuage” the “guilt” she felt at the selection. Danny describes a desire to know. Jena observes that the questions have changed, largely because of emergent storage and search technologies, between 1990, the time of the poem, and now. "When she made this piece, it was a question of ‘What will happen if I do this? What coincidences will occur? What sense will be made that I cannot predict?’ And now, you come across something like this, and the question is ‘Where is it from?’” To which Danny replies: “Now there are so many more interesting things, such as [being able to discern] all the discrete little decisions that she makes. You can go back and see, for instance, that she quotes this whole line but breaks it in half.”
So Jena disagreed with Al’s inclination to do what amounts to a biographical (or bio-bibliographical) reading of the poem based on assumptions Al felt could be naturally made about what books the poets wanted to discard — and the desire to make something bona fide Cagean out of a mostly non-Cagean canon. What we make disappear bespeaks what we wish to be all the more present. And Jena disagreed with Danny’s approach, a close cousin to Al’s, which celebrates new capacities enabled by the digital super-archive that warrant a close dissection of procedure-directed choices of non-authorial texts.
Meantime, Jonathan set up an overlapping and yet distinct and challenging binarism — that of the “seminar” approach as distinct from the “workshop” approach to such a poem. He begins his point by pondering — and somewhat doubting the efficacy of — the act of close reading the poem’s enjambments. “Is that maybe more of a workshop question, in relation to reading this poem, than a seminar question? And my question would be more of a seminar question, a hermeneutic question of trying to construct some kind of gestalt of the poem as a whole, and an understanding of the poem as a whole.... I find myself especially recently wanting to encourage [in my students] a kind of distant reading, in a way, to back up from the poem. So I wonder, given the interest of the enjambment here: where do you go from there to an interpretation of the poem as a whole?” In her response, which PoemTalk listeners are encouraged to hear for themselves in the audio recording of our discussion, Jena urged us to consider the works of John Cage, noting that it would be hard to imagine “that paying attention to things that you might not pay attention to otherwise is not key. Cage is about close reading or close listening — or listening differently.” (Pictured above, left to right: Danny Snelson, Jena Osman, Jonathan Monroe.)
Here is the text of “Not a Cage.” PennSound’s Joan Retallack page includes two recordings of her performing the poem: one from a reading given at Buffalo in 1993, another recorded by Aldon Nielsen in 1991.
PoemTalk is produced by Al Filreis and is sponsored at the Kelly Writers House (special thanks to Michelle Taransky and Jessica Lowenthal), by PennSound (thanks to Charles Bernstein), the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing (thanks to Mingo Reynolds and Chris Martin), and the Poetry Foundation (with thanks to Cathy Halley). Our show this time was engineered by Jeff Boruszak and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.
Cole Swensen, 'If a Garden of Numbers'
Cole Swensen’s book Ours is a sequence of poems — or is perhaps best described as a poetic project. André Le Nôtre (1613-1700) was the principal gardener of King Louis XIV; he designed and led the construction of the park of the Palace of Versailles. The poems in Swensen’s book indicate a range of interests in Le Nôtre’s work and beyond, but his Gardens of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte are of special interest, and they are the topic of the poem we chose to discuss, “If a Garden of Numbers.” The poem, and our talk about it, raised a number of compelling questions. Are historical research and the lyric compatible?
(Yes, we agreed. But what are the varieties of integrating the two? And how does a scholarly methodology knowingly bespeak what was once super-elite art — namely, Le Nôtre's?) Can the hyper-rational garden be truly “ours,” ever? (The master landscape designer's name is a pun on that possessive form of liberalism’s favorite pronoun from the French Revolution onward. This pun is a key to understanding Swensen’s poem and indeed the whole book.) If — to quote Swensen channeling Louis XIV — “it was an age that felt that nature could be corrected,” does such an urge extend to the formalities of poetry? If Le Nôtre “couldn't stand views that end,” what effect should that have on a poetics? The idea that the garden includes everything you can see from the garden has some kind of political valence: progressive if what’s beyond the garden can and must be welcomed in, if natural emigration is really possible (by virtue of its design, notwithstanding the exclusivity of its original patron); conservative if Le Nôtre's act of inclusion colonizes nature beyond its border. If the latter, then is form as a kind of artifice inherently conservative? Le Nôtre’s “jar in Tennessee” problem means that form takes dominion everywhere, even if the slovenly wilderness grows up all around it. One needn’t beat it back. One need only place the form in its midst. Finally: If art is an idea as distinct from nature, and if the “real exceeds the ideal,” then can a poem of ideas about nature be aligned with the real? We’re back to hyper-rationality. These gardens are beautifully excessive, and so — Swensen seems to contend, but arguably — they get at humanity because indeed they produce a version of reality rather than (merely) ideality. Subjectivity is affirmed. Every slight shift in perspective matters a great deal. The garden (the poem too?) is a way of making nature account for the mind.
Ann Seaton, Michelle Taransky, and Gregory Djanikian joined Al Filreis for this discussion. We went hard at all the questions enumerated above, expressing doubts about the progressive claim implicit in the pun on “ours.” We pondered the aesthetics and ethics of the garden that includes everything one can see from the garden. Annie offered a political reading, and the others responded, both agreeing and pressing back. Fortunately for us and for PoemTalk listeners, Cole Swensen was interviewed about this work by Leonard Schwartz for one of his “Cross-Cultural Poetics” shows, and so our varying interpretations can benefit from a rich context of resources and responses. Here, below, are relevant audio segments from that radio broadcast:
- introduction and discussion of the Le Nôtre gardens (5:12): MP3
- brief note on the style of “A Garden Is a Start” (1:40): MP3
- “A Garden Is a Start” (3:12): MP3
- discussion of the language of fact in poetry (8:05): MP3
- “Paradise” (0:56): MP3
- discussion of gardens as dominion over nature (2:43): MP3
- discussion of the geometry of the Le Notre gardens (3:38): MP3
- introductory discussion to “Versailles the Unfurled” (2:53): MP3
- “Versailles the Unfurled” (3:56): MP3
- dicussion of fountains and water as a public and private commodity (5:42): MP3
- “Keeping Track of Distance” (with a brief introduction) (1:40): MP3
During that same discussion, Swensen read our poem: MP3. The text of the poem is available at the Poetry Foundation site: text. Cole Swensen has responded to this episode of PoemTalk: here is a link to her note.
Linh Dinh, 'Eating Fried Chicken'
Linh Dinh playfully and bitterly engages food, war, and race in a poem called “Eating Fried Chicken.” The poem appeared in his book American Tatts, published by Chax in 2005. For PoemTalk’s 51st episode, Thomas Devaney, Susan Schultz (visiting from Hawai'i), and Leonard Schwartz (visiting from Olympia, Washington) joined Al Filreis to talk about this work of apparently straightforward address yet tonal complexity.
During the discussion Tom especially wrestles with the problem of tone. There’s plenty of humor in the poem, he notes, but one can also read the speaker as a person who has “taken all the trouble inside of him and he’s internalized it.” Thus the “debts you owe me” — debts presumably the “brother” of line 1 owes the speaker — remind Tom of a tonal double strategy (particularly on questions of race) that Linh Dinh has learned from the early Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and from Etheridge Knight: “going on the offensive," as Tom puts it, "and yet implicating himself fully.”
Pressing his reading of the poem’s antagonist as a Vietnam War veteran, Al asks someone to describe how matters of family, honor, country (and “blood”) pertain to food, whereupon Susan, thinking about Hawai'i, notes Asian American funerary practice which entails bringing comestibles to the deceased. Dinh doesn’t want to be marked, she says, as an Asian American writer per se but “he's willing to play with that identification between food and identity precisely to call it into question.” “‘I dare you,’” Al summarizes, “‘to make me mean something by what I eat.’” So what in the poem is the significance of the crispy chicken as alluringly “fast,” so alluring as to disallow expectation and erase memory? Leonard observes that here Dinh is a poet who “steps from the street into the curb” and “looks down at formless stuff, and picks it up and starts playing with it” in the (modernist) tradition of Walter Benjamin (the “ragpicker who collects urban detritus only to turn it into poetry” — a key phrase from The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire), except that here, in Dinh’s world, the supposed junk “has been manufactured to look like that,” as Leonard puts it, “manufactured to appear formless, junk in its very origins.” And so junk food is obviously part of the aesthetic of the poem.
Clearly this is an occasion when the speaker is ostentatiously yet blithely willing to lick and consume food that is “not generally available to mankind.” But “there are also times” when he (on principle? because of his sense of racial and international justice? because of a traumatic experience with people in war?) will “refuse” this easy, thoughtless gluttony. Such an ethical stance then puts his poem in mind of the scarcity of fresh food — the apples of line 12 — and of the riots non-ritualized (literal) privation causes. Yet, again, the showiness of the speaker’s consumption in the first lines of the poem carries the intrepid but blithe conversationalism of the language all the way through until the very end when the breathing of the poet brings him up short, for the air enabling these utterances conjures the memory of war, from which eating fried chicken is presumably a great distance: lungs of “gun powder and smoke.” Listen very closely to this audio recording — turn the volume way up — and you should be able hear Linh Dinh’s special kind of breathing: a subtle although very basic form of urgency.
Dinh’s PennSound page includes several performances of “Eating Fried Chicken.” The recording we used was made during an extensive “Studio 111” reading in Philadelphia in December of 2007. We invite PoemTalk’s audience to compare the nuanced ethical tone of this poem with those of several other American Tatts works performed at the same time: “Sudden Death Overtime” and “Bearings,” for example. And for the context of Linh Dinh’s critique of commodification and political power — and for a sense of his recent movement somewhat away from poetry — we recommend the hour-long talk he gave at the opening event launching an exhibit of his photographs in January 2011 and also his ongoing photographic blog, State of the Union.
The editor of this episode of PoemTalk was, as always, Steve McLaughlin.