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.

Into the Field: Souvankham Thammavongsa

Souvankham Thammavongsa is a poet who lives and works in Toronto. Her parents were raised in Laos, and she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1978. Thammavongsa’s family moved to Canada when she was a year old. Her book Found (2007) describes these experiences, and was made into a short film by director Paramita Nath. Thammavongsa’s first book of poems is Small Arguments (2003). You can find her website here.

Wieners by night (PoemTalk #43)

John Wieners, 'The Acts of Youth'

John Wieners at the Odessa Restaurant, New York City, November 1993. Photo by Allen Ginsberg.


Ammiel Alcalay, Gary Barwin, and Danny Snelson joined Al Filreis to talk about a poem by John Wieners for which we at PennSound have two recordings. The version used as the basis of this PoemTalk discussion was part of a brief two-poem performance at the Poetry Project in New York, in 1990. (He also read "Confidence" that day.) “The Acts of Youth” was written in the early 1960s and published in Wieners's second book, Ace of Pentacles, in 1964.<--break- />

So here was a late performance of an early poem — a poem, it turns out, that Wieners constantly revised.

What of the second recording of the poem? Well, it had been somewhat buried — if that's the apt term — inside a long recording made by Robert Creeley and given to the PennSound staff by Will Creeley in a box of many reel-to-reel tapes. Wieners had visited Creeley’s ENG 1670 course at Harvard in 1972; the fabulous instructor, sensing the rarity of the occasion, had the characteristic presence of mind to make a recording. The sound quality isn’t perfect, even after digital conversion and enhancement, but one can clearly hear Creeley and Wieners as they try to remember the poem Wieners had earlier mentioned he'd want to recite for the students. This was, of course, “The Acts of Youth.”[1] As Danny Snelson remarks during the PoemTalk discussion, the two readings, that of 1972 and that of 1990, are just about as distinct as could be. In ‘72 Wieners held to the lineation as indicated on the printed page. By ‘90 he was running through every stop sign in a literally breathless performance.

Gary Barwin took the broken meter of the second performance quite seriously, and as a musical exercise — to help him discern the actually quite consistent beat of what must have seemed at St. Mark’s that day an improvisation based on the end-of-tether-ish way Wieners was feeling — Gary put some persistent sound behind the Poetry Project recording. In the PoemTalk show you can hear an excerpt from this, but Al promised that we would give access to the whole thing, so here it is.

Listeners will readily grasp Ammiel Alaclay’s special attachment to the life and work of John Wieners. Which is to say (among other things), Ammiel knew Wieners for many years and his various comments on this remarkable personage provide surely one of the highlights of the PoemTalk series.

PoemTalk was engineered and directed by James LaMarre and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

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1.  The visit to Creeley’s Harvard class produced a conversation worthy of close study. There’s an 8-minute discussion of the poetry of affect and its relation to the impetus for writing. Then there’s a 3-and-half-minute discussion of Amiri Baraka. and 17 minutes on “homosexuality in poems” and related matters.

Into the Field: Kaplan Harris

Kaplan Harris is a scholar and editor who writes about a wide variety of 20th- and 21st-century poetry, including the work of Ted Berrigan, Hannah Weiner, Susan Howe, and the Flarf poets. With degrees from North Carolina State University and the University of Notre Dame, he currently teaches at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York. For the last several years, Harris has been co-editing the forthcoming Selected Letters of Robert Creeley with Peter Baker and Rod Smith. His article “The Small Press Traffic school of dissimulation” was recently published in Jacket2.