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.

- - -

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.

Into the Field: Tao Lin

Tao Lin is a novelist, poet, and provocateur currently living in Brooklyn. He has written six books of fiction and poetry, including Richard Yates (2010), Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009), and cognitive behavioral therapy (2008). Lin runs the publishing imprint Muumuu House, and you can find his website here. He also occasionally contributes to the blog Thought Catalog. I spoke with Lin in his bedroom in June of 2010.

Into the Field: Sina Queyras

Sina Queyras is a poet and writer currently living in Montreal. She was raised in western Canada, and has degrees from the University of British Columbia and Concordia University. Queyras has lived in many places and held many jobs, and we talk about the ways geography and work have shaped her poetics. Her poetry collections Lemon Hound (2007) and Expressway (2009) were published by Coach House Books, and her excellent blog is called Lemon Hound.

A hole torn in the world (PoemTalk #42)

Nathaniel Tarn, 'Unraveling / Shock'

Nathaniel Tarn; "Dying Trees" jacket


The eighth section of Nathaniel Tarn’s sequence Dying Trees is titled “Unravelling / Shock.” Dying Trees was first published as a chapbook in 2003; later, in 2008, it was included entirely in Tarn’s New Directions book, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers. When the Dying Trees sequence was still unpublished, Tarn gave a reading at the Kelly Writers House (2002) during which he read several sections of the then-new poem, including the one discussed here by Marcella Durand, Burt Kimmelman, Erin Gautsche, and PoemTalk’s producer and host, Al Filreis.

The setting is certainly Tarn’s parched American southwest. Drought is killing the trees; a cancer diagnosis is delivered; nationalism has brought more warring. The convergence of the three forms a “web.” “A hole [has been] torn in the fabric of the world.” News travels bodily; leaders fail to lead; beetles pierce bark; a demonic mouse – “wee” and yet terribly efficacious – compounds the morbidity to the point of body-snatching. It happens as an ecological, medical, and political simultaneity, and the speaker is not in a state to be much concerned about keeping the categories separate. Thus the poem is itself “the whole infernal weave” – a quality more obvious in this eighth section of the poem than in others.<--break- />

Our talkers, Burt especially (a great admirer of Tarn), found this verging on didactic. And yet Burt, Erin, and Marcella all acknowledge that what’s actually causing the sense of didacticism is the “unravelling” of the poem’s lines and thematic focus.

Burt, Erin, and Marcella each take a turn, toward the end of the discussion, in an effort to relate Tarn’s career-long interest in ethnopoetics to the ecopoetics of the Dying Trees sequence. Indeed, then, they ponder the two categories in general relation.

Back in our poem, “Ghosts” walking among the dying trees get the last word (quoted in the final lines of the poem):

              “those days,
those days you took no notice of, counting them poor,
dispersing them among the memories you could not value
at their truth worth, you could not recognize enough to feel:
who knows if these few days, these very days, were not
those ones lived together here, the only paradise?”

Tarn, an eminent anthropologist as well as a poet, finds a speaker at the apparent end of the world and has him describe a paradise lost; the verb is lived, not live.

- - -

In 2003, Jacket published two sections of Dying Trees, the 7th and 9th. The 9th, entitled “Golden Globes of Hopefulness,” was also recorded during the Kelly Writers House reading mentioned above. Jacket also published Tarn’s review of a book about Robert Duncan and illness. And Jacket 39 included a wide-ranging feature of essays and commentary on Tarn’s work overall.

PoemTalk #42 was directed and engineered by James LaMarre, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.