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Sean Cole is a poet and radio producer currently based in New York City. I spoke with him last summer in Toronto, where he was living at the time. Sean’s chapbook Itty City (Pressed Wafer) was published in 2003, and The December Project (Boog Literature), a collection of postcard poems, came out in 2005. Sean has contributed to numerous public radio programs, including This American Life, All Things Considered, Marketplace, and Weekend America. He produced a memorable piece on Flarf poetry for Studio 360 in 2009, and his story “Death Mask” appeared as a Radiolab podcast last month.
Rosmarie Waldrop, 'Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence'
Rosmarie Waldrop’s book Shorter American Memory consists of prose poems collaged from documents collected in Henry Beston’s American Memory, a book of the late 1930s evincing an Americanist zeal for early documents. Beston's historicism seemed a liberal effort to restore and include in the American story, as it was being retold during the Depression, a wide range of Native American as well as both obscure and classic “founding” or “first encounter” Euro-American writings. By appying various constraints to these documents, Waldrop rewrites Beston by “taking liberties” — an intentional pun on her part — with the gist of the anthology and its very length. In doing so, (to quote her publishers at Paradigm Press) she “unearths compelling clues into America's perception of its own past, developing a vision of America vital for its intelligence, wit & compassion.”
We at PoemTalk decided to take a close look at one of these prose poems, “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence.” A performance of this poem, preceded by a short introduction, was recorded at Buffalo in 1992. The main work of that reading was to present many chapters from Key into the Language of America, a project related to that of Shorter American Memory in several ways we mention in our discussion. As a warm-up to Key, she read three of her writings-through Beston: ours on the Declaration, a second on Salem, and a third on “the American Character According to [George] Santayana.” Here is a link to Waldrop's PennSound page, where these and many other recordings are linked.
Al felt especially pleased to be joined on this occasion by Jessica Lowenthal (the poet, Director of the Writers House, and former student of Waldrop at Brown), Julia Bloch (co-editor of Jacket2), and Johanna Drucker, who was visiting us from Los Angeles that day for a talk on materiality and aesthetics, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be stunningly suggestive and exciting.
This episode of PoemTalk was, we think, masterfully edited and sound-adjusted by our long-time editor, Steve McLaughlin. Thanks to the digitorial work of Danny Snelson, Shorter American Memory has been made available in its entirety as a PDF downloadable from Ubu Editions. A transcript of this episode is available here.
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I interviewed Dale Smith and Hoa Nguyen at their home in Austin last August. The two studied poetry at the New University of California, and they started the Skanky Possum imprint together in the late ’90s. Hoa’s book Hecate Lochia came out in 2009, and her new collection As Long as Trees Last will be published by Wave Books in 2012. Dale’s most recent book of poetry is Susquehanna, published in 2008, and his book Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960 will come out early next year. For more writing by Hoa Nguyen and information on her independent poetry workshops, visit Hoa-Nguyen.com. Dale Smith’s blog is Possum Ego, and his anthology Slow Poetry: An Introduction nicely encapsulates his aesthetic interests. The couple and their two sons moved to Toronto this past summer, where Dale has taken a position in the English department at Ryerson University.
Jackson Mac Low, 'Words nd Ends from Ez'
PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard’s own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound’s lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII. Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A P O U N D. Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more.
Thus the poem’s commentary on Pound, its both aesthetic and ethical positioning with respect to Pound, is profounder than it might have been otherwise, had the poem been a “sincerely felt” subjective lyric response to the final Poundian ethos — an oscillation between stubborn repetition of earlier modes and mea culpa.
We couldn’t help thinking about John Cage’s writings through Pound in connection with this work. During this part of the discussion Joan Retallack said the following:
Mac Low admired Pound more than Cage did. One of the things that was, to me, so always intersting about the way Cage worked was that he thought out his procedures very carefully in advance, not so that he would know what was going to happen in the parts of the structure that would allow chance operations to choose the points, as he would put it, in the text, but because he knew the way you choose your procedure has a lot to do with extremely formal elements ultimately. He chose to let more of Pound in [more, that is, than Mac Low does based on his procedure in our poem] and this was ultimately more unpleasant for Cage because he didn't like the Pound. I think the reason to continue reading Pound and to continue the agonistic relationship we all have to have with Pound when we read [him] is that it is such a presentation of the complexities and the horrifying things that can happen to a mind that is going in directions that are passionate without empathy, without contact with others.
Notwithstanding the agonism, and a non-Freudian/non-Bloomian version of anxiety of influence, Pierre Joris takes us back to the great pleasure we derive from the performance of this poem, with its multilinguistic melodrama, its playfully exaggerated accents — perhaps part of the rejoinder to Pound as a matter of sense but perhaps, too, a result of the joy of bespeaking words extracted from the languages of The Cantos, mostly liberated from its topical tyrannies. “This is sound work that frees the poem from a heavy logos,” says Charles. “I think the important thing,” says Pierre, “is that it has to be heard first. And it has to be read aloud. ‘Hey read that. Get your mouth around it.’” And we agreed on the primacy of Mac Low’s performance as a somatic experience.
We are grateful to Joan Retallack and her colleagues at Bard College for arranging our recording session, and to the audience of some 40 students, faculty, and others who made up a positively responsive live audience for only the second time in PoemTalk’s run (the other was PoemTalk #10 on Stein). We also wish to thank James LaMarre, our longtime director-engineer, who travelled from Philadelphia to Annandale-on-Hudson to help us with the recording; and, as always, Steve McLaughlin, PoemTalk's original editor.
Eileen Myles, 'Snakes'
Eileen Myles wrote “Snakes” just as she was assigning children in a friend’s Provincetown poetry workshop to write a poem with the following not-so-constraining-seeming constraint: “Be any age and go down the drain with it.” Her poem, then, is something of a pedagogical model, an exercise in teaching by participation. Or perhaps the assignment she gave the students simply felt so alluring to her — befit her own aesthetic so well — that she couldn’t help but try it herself, regardless of her role as young writers’ guide. This was in 1997 or so. By January 1998 she was reading the poem at the Ear Inn in New York. It was published in The Massachusetts Review also in 1998.
Sarah Dowling, Michelle Taransky, and Charles Alexander (Charles was visiting from the Southwest, and delighted us with a poetry reading the same day) joined Al Filreis in Al’s studio office at the Kelly Writers House to discuss this poem. Charles had spoken with Eileen Myles before the recording and was able to confirm our hunch about the poem’s derivation from the workshop exercise. Then Charles wonders aloud: once we establish that specific motive or origin for the poem, we must ask what does putting something — let alone a poem — down the drain mean, and how does it manifest itself in the writing itself? Charles begins that part of our discussion by suggesting that it might be something akin to going down the rabbit hole. Memory moving crossways and around — quick-cut fast and time-disordering slow at once.
Some kind of domestic memories (not surprising given the poem’s emergence out of the subject position of a six-year-old). Michelle Taransky hears and identifies domestic details, such that the going-down-the-drainness of the poem seems to connect us with a vortexical memory of the domestic situation in the child. Charles senses that the six-year-old seems mostly unaware of the loss. Michelle notes the percussiveness of phrases varying from “I was 6,” and suggests that the poem is about a collision of perspectives: being the non-six-year-old (an adult teacher-poet “doing” six) and, in the present of the poem’s drained fiction, being persistently just six.
Al asks how much temptation there is to read the poem allegorically. Sarah responds by thinking through the importance of the snake. “I lost my snake,” she quotes. For her, the lost figure casts its curling shadow over the rest of the poem. Does the snake belong to the “I” (as a pet, it seems), the poem’s speaker at the beginning? Okay, but then the snake seems also to be the “reptile child” we see toward the end. Sarah comes to believe that “Snakes” is about a domestic moment of loss. The loss of self, the loss of a daughter from a mother (the “I” with the husband?), the loss of the reptile-child self. The group sees evidence in the poem that being six years old can convey a disempowering sensation in extremis. The repetition of “I am 6” is at times “silly” (also at times “comic booky”) but creates a sense of entrapped stupidity — a way of feeling in advance what it’s going to be like to be unsuccessful at being an adult. Al several times proffers an historical reading of the situation as specifically a Cold War-era domesticity; this is not so much taken up by the others as accepted as contributing to the overall heightened sense of feared big loss, tramping feet with music blaring at the end of the war, comic-book-sized quasi-allegory about runaway reptiles, domestication gone awry, etc.