Gertrude Stein, 'Christian Bérard'
“Stein leaves no doubt…that she’s doing portraits in the same way that Picasso and Braque are doing portraits.” So says Jerome Rothenberg — very helpfully — in the first minute of our discussion of Gertrude Stein’s “Christian Bérard.” PennSound’s Stein page includes a recording made in New York during the winter of 1934-35 of the first page of the poem as it appeared in Portraits & Prayers, the Random House volume that had just been published. The portrait of Bérard — a friend of Stein’s, a painter and set designer and frequenter of her salon — had been written in 1928.
But back to Jerry’s statement, meant to get us to talk about non-representational depictions, for (the first line of the poem), “Eating is her subject. / While eating is her subject. / Where eating is her subject” certainly does suggest, emphatically, that neither Bérard nor anyone else is the subject of the poem.
Bob Perelman joined us for PoemTalk #10 and noticed that when Jerry read the poem aloud for us he erred in reading the line, “She ate a thin ham and its sauce.” Jerry said “name” instead of “sauce” and Bob persuasively runs with that apt substitution. This is a poem about the named and not-named — or, as Lee Ann Brown, our third PoemTalker this time, noted, how language for Stein is something that can be eaten and, in that sense, purely enjoyed, taken in, consumed, made an embodiment.
I kept pushing my conversants to find an at least winking reference to Bérard, at least in the avoidance of him. We know that he was considered an improvisatory genius (in stage design) and had irresistible personal charm despite “his apparent indifference to personal hygiene.” He cut quite a figure in the Stein/Toklas flat, especially at dinnertime. Yet about Bérard's paintings, Stein quipped: “They are almost something and then they are just not.” This there/not-there quality of her subject’s art — especially when contrasted with Picasso’s and Braque’s portraiture (the real instigation of the poem) — seems replicated in the poem’s relationship to portraiture itself.
Such winking Paris-insider references aside — they become mere literary-historical background — we four took pleasure in the pleasure Stein obvious took here, word by word. Bob’s sense of the punning “Withdraw” (pull back, yes; but also, draw one kind of portrait while withdraw another kind), Lee Ann’s and Jerry’s sense of child-like play on sounds, our all getting hungry during a late-afternoon talk about a poem dwelling upon “the difference between steaming and roasting,” “breaded veal and grapes,” “pigeon and a souffle”…these are elements of a language that is like food: delicious, to be taken in. Stein is perhaps to the literary critic as the lover of meals is to the foodie. The foodie’s irony: there’s talk about food and then there is its realist purpose. What if language were really seen in such a way? We’d all be happier.
PT #10 was directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin and recorded in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House. Our poem is available as a free, downloadable mp3 recording on PennSound.
 Dance Research Journal 22/1 (Spring 1990), p. 32.
2 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933, chapter 7.
John Ashbery, 'Crossroads in the Past'
Our PoemTalkers — this time, Gregory Djanikian, Tom Devaney and Jessica Lowenthal — gathered to talk about a late poem by John Ashbery, “Crossroads in the Past,” from his book Your Name Here (2000). Amid the usual Ashberyean ontological bounty, here’s a poem that disentangles the crossed lines of narrative middles and ends (and beginnings). Straightens things out, or at least imagines the goodness of such straightness. And indulges in a nostalgia for the way things were at the start.
Is it age — or the loss of a loved one — that draws an anti-narrative poet to beginnings at the end? That, in short, is the question we posed of this poem. And does such a thing undermine a career-long devotion to middles with implied pre-stories? The wind blows in the direction it blows, and can’t be “wrong.” What about a “relationship”? Can — or should — a relationship be talked back to its beginnings, a narrative housecleaning?
Jessica and Greg decided finally that the apparently definitive ending dead-ends in an obvious imagery and sentiment. Tom and Al disagreed, seeing the poem as thus a meta-poem: a poem about the poet who has reached a point where he must re-imagine “the beginnings concept” and who realizes its failure.
John Ashbery read this poem as a Kelly Writers House Fellow in the spring of 2002. We have video recordings of the reading and an interview/conversation moderated by Al Filreis.
Here is a link to the Poetry Foundation’s PoemTalk page.
Here is PennSound’s John Ashbery page. This page has grown enormously in recent weeks, as PennSound becomes the prime available-for-download repository of audio recordings of this great contemporary poet. Here is a link to Ashbery’s reading of our poem, “Crossroads in the Past.”
PoemTalk #9 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing in Philadelphia. Our engineer-director and editor was Steve McLaughlin.
At top: standing from left, Tom Devaney and Jessica Lowenthal; seated from left, Gregory Djanikian and Al Filreis.
Rae Armantrout, 'The Way'
This time the PoemTalkers were Ron Silliman, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Charles Bernstein, and our poem was Rae Armantrout’s “The Way.” Charles had already spoken with Rae about this poem briefly during their interview in the Close Listening series, so we went into our convo knowing that Rae sees the poem as having two compositional parts—a first part consisting of found phrases, items from the poet’s notebook of linguistic observations, a collage of voices, no fixed I. “I am here” is Jesus revealed to you in a pew, but I is also a poem’s prospective speaker: someone saying something tautological. Where else would you be, at the moment, than here? The second half, again according to the poet—revealingly or not—is a quasi-personal recollection: being read to as a child, getting lost in a story and thus feeling “abandoned” by the mother who gave her the gift of books. Gretel-like, does she “come upon” these trees, this wood, each time diving into the wreck of each new now-nonnarrative venture? The most relevant of such ventures being...this poem itself? Who is lost in it? Have we lost the poem’s speaker, only to come upon her again (and again)?
Charles chants lyrics from Grease: Grease is the way I am feeling. Rachel reminds us that “I am here” can also read as “Kilroy was here” does — a marker left by someone who came randomly before. Ron helps us focus on the ending: a grand vision expected, a definitive something, the light coming down through the trees, and what we get is…“again.” The sort of thing that keeps happening over and over. “Once” (as in “once upon a time”) in “once again” (the fairy tale’s synchronicity).
Card in pew pocket
“I am here.”
I made only one statement
because of a bad winter.
Grease is the word; grease
is the way
I am feeling.
Real life emergencies or
flubbing behind the scenes.
As a child,
I was abandoned
in a story
made of trees.
Here’s the small
of this clearing
come “upon” “again”
Here is Armantrout’s PennSound page, and here is the 27-second mp3 recording of “The Way.”
PoemTalk #8 was recorded in studio 111 of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Our director and engineer was Steve McLaughlin.
Jerome Rothenberg, 'A Paradise of Poets'
Bob Holman spent a few hours away from the at-times paradisal Bowery Poetry Club to help us (PoemTalk regulars Jessica Lowenthal and Randall Couch) figure out what sort of beloved community Jerome Rothenberg had in mind when he wrote his possibly programmatic poem, “A Paradise of Poets.” He published this short poem in a volume called Seedings and only then, a little later, published the book called A Paradise of Poets (which lacks the title poem). Confused? Please don’t be. The poem is a working out of the major preoccupying themes of the book that followed.
And what a book it is! In A Paradise of Poets we re-visit Paradise…err, sorry…Paris, where the ghosts of JR’s modernist forebearers (the generation of 1910, he says) appear to him in the guise of Left Bank street people, well dressed but destitute. He anticipates his own demise; he is lonely yet surrounded by the voices of poets he admires. And he realizes that a paradise of poets is only possible when one poet’s line stops just as the next poet’s line continues, a “line” indeed, as in lineage.
Bob, Jessica and Randall agree in our discussion that this is a heartfelt conclusion and that it must come in stages, beginning with the sort of poetic narcissism under the spell of which the poet believes that no one else can write his poem, even as he is writing over (literally on top of) that of his predecessor.
The world will not end when he does.
Asserting the centrality of such connectedness, Jerome Rothenberg, it was said by Allen Ginsberg, saved us all twenty years. Or, as Bob Holman put it, “He was Google before there was Google.”
A Paradise of Poets
He takes a book down from his shelf & scribbles across
a page of text: I am the final one. This means the world will
end when he does.
In the Inferno, Dante considers a Paradise of Poets & calls
Foolishly he thinks his place is elswhere.
Now the time has come to write a poem about a Paradise of
Here is the recording of the poem (mp3), and here is a link to PennSound’s ample Rothenberg page. Of course JR is widely admired as one of the great performers of his and others’ poetry.
Our poem was recorded for the Radio Readings Project on April 24, 1999. PoemTalk’s director, engineer and editor for this episode was Steve McLaughlin.
Jaap Blonk, 'What the President Will Say and Do'
LISTEN TO THE SHOW
It’s easy to imagine that when Tracie Morris (the performer and musical poet) and Kenny Goldsmith (father of Ubuweb, proponent of uncreative writing) joined me and Joshua Schuster as PoemTalkers there would be some noise, pure noise, and indeed there was. So why not go all the way and make our poem a sound poem: Jaap Blonk’s insistently sounded performance of the phrase that is the title of a book by Madeline Gins. What the president will say and do. What, indeed?
Joshua and Kenny and I had seen and heard Blonk perform the piece in the very room where we recorded this episode of PoemTalk; Tracie and Kenny had heard him do it for the first time, at a conference in L.A. where Gins was in the audience. So we had this one covered from all sides.
“So,” I asked, “what do you think is the deficiency of having only an audio recording of this?” I was thinking of Blonk’s strained reddening face and neck toward the end of the piece: a giant of a man holding his breath and choking on words. Kenny’s response to this question: “I don't think there's any deficiency, because he's such a good performer that the audio component of the performance carries the day. And if you’re lucky enough to see him it’s even more incredible in a different way, but I don’t think anything is lost without him being there.” Tracie agrees: “You listen. You just listen. There are so many great things he’s doing with that piece.”
So do, please, listen. Listen to us, yes, but listen especially to Blonk.
Tracie hears patriotic marching in the percussive deformation of the sound of the words (and specifically hears Sousa). Josh hear resonances with presidential politics (to which Tracie adds that she also hears chickens). That leads Josh and me to take some advantage of an apparent split in the soundy camp between the overtly political music poet (Tracie) and the pleasure-seeking all-words-are-already-political gatherer of verbal ambience (Kenny). The political/aesthetic binarism collapses rather quickly, but it’s fun (and edifying) while it lasts.
Our recording of Jaap Blonk was made on November 11, 2004 at the Kelly Writers House, recorded by Chris Mustazza and now part of the PennSound archive. Kenny’s UbuWeb has a wonderful Blonk page, replete with a bibliography.
As always, Steve McLaughlin was our director and our editor.