Poem going down the drain (PoemTalk #45)

Eileen Myles, 'Snakes'

Eileen Myles in October 2008. Photo by Annemarie Poyo Furlong.


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.<--break- />

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.

James LaMarre was our director and engineer, while Steve McLaughin, as always, edited this episode.

Into the Field: Alejandro Crawford

Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford is a poet and video artist of the first degree. I spoke with him in Athens, Georgia on a muggy July afternoon just over a year ago. These days Alejandro makes a living as a professional VJ, touring the world regularly with the band MGMT. You can see a bit of his work for them here, and Art21 Blog has recently posted a demonstration of his Vonome video organ. Collections of his videos can be found on Vimeo and YouTube. Alejandro’s poetry collection BHO is available on EOAGH, and his book Morpheu (BlazeVOX, 2009) can be purchased through Small Press Distribution.

Into the Field: Nick Montfort

Nick Montfort is a writer and scholar specializing in digital poetics and computational media. He has a Ph.D. in computer and information science from Penn, and is currently an associate professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We discuss his most recent book, Riddle & Bind (Spineless Books, 2010), as well as his poetry generator series ppg256 and his early story “Kung Fu Christ.” You can find more of Nick’s work at nickm.com.

On the other side of the tracks (PoemTalk #44)

Fred Wah, 'Race, to go'

from left: Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, Bob Perelman, Fred Wah


Lisa Robertson, Jeff Derksen, and Bob Perelman joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem in a sixteen-poem series by Fred Wah going under the title “Discount Me In.” That series and several others were brought together in a book called Is a Door. Our poem, “Race, to go,” is the first — a proem of sorts — in the “Discount Me In” group, and we have occasion during our discussion to talk about the several valences of discounting. I don't count. The census misses me because I fall between the cracks in racial categories. The neo-liberal moment has cheapened me. Both positively and negatively racially charged language around food, freely punned and intensely oral, turns casual by-talk into rebarbative backhand (creating an effect distinctly pleasurable) and brings into the poem the entire story of official Canadian multiculturalism.

Race, to go
What’s yr race
            and she said
what’s yr hurry
how bout it cock
                                                        asian man
I’m just going for curry.
                        You ever been to ethni-city?
                        How bout multi-culti?
                                        You ever lay out skin
                                        for the white gaze?
What are you, banana
or egg? Coconut
                            Something wrong Charlie
                            You got a slant to yr marginal eyes?
You want a little rice with that garlic?
Is this too hot for you?
            Or slimy    or bitter    or smelly    or tangy    or raw    or sour
— a little too dirty
            on the edge    hiding underneath    crawling up yr leg    stuck
between the fingernails?
Is that a black hair in yr soup?
                        Well how you wanna handle this?
                         You wanna maintain a bit of différ-ence?
                         Keep or mother’s other?
                         Use the father for the fodder?
What side of John A. Macdonald’s tracks you on anyway?
                         How fast you think this train is going

                                                                                                                  to go? 

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Bob and Al, the Americans here, learned a few lessons about how different from the American melting-pot version of multiculturalism the Canadian approach has been, where there’s “a pseudo-maintenance of a piquant difference” (as Lisa Robertson put it).  Our poem pushes piquant playfully yet angrily hard, to the point where sanctioned everyday cultural practices connect to the larger failures of the neoliberal economy.

In Banff, in 2010, Fred Wah took the opportunity to read many of these poems and to discuss them with Charles Bernstein as part of the Close Listening series; this material is all available on Fred Wah’s page at PennSound. Here is a recording of Fred Wah reading “Race, to go.” Here is a related poem, “Count,” and here is “Mr. In-between.”

Into the Field: Jeremy James Thompson

Jeremy James Thompson is a renaissance man of the poetic arts: writer, publisher, printer, designer, teacher, and all-around organizer. On his website The Autotypograph, you can find his imprint Auto Types Press and his blog Autotypist, as well as a thorough list of his other projects and accomplishments. Thompson is also an elite bartender and mixologist, which we touch on in our conversation. We spoke on a broiling July day in New Orleans, where he moved last summer after spending several years in New York City.