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.
Ted Berrigan, '3 Pages'
A list of Bohemian pleasures. Ted Berrigan’s “3 Pages” is a list poem, surely. He mentions ten things he does every day (including “read lunch poems,” surely a reference to Frank O’Hara’s book of that title) but the PoemTalkers — Randall Couch, Linh Dinh and special guest erica kaufman — had trouble counting them. We got to nine, and pondered. erica then suggested that she “would count ‘NOT ENOUGH’ as being ten.” The last line of the poem. Those American things (heart attack, Congressional medal, second home) that immediately precede the last line…well, for Berrigan, they don’t add up.
So our PoemTalk poem this time is a summing-up poem (Berrigan hinted as such a quality) that sums up by affixing “not enough” to the total. We four liked this sort of life, were turned on by it. Oh, set us down by the waters of Manhattan.
Aside from O’Hara there are further literary references here in this poem about leading the literary life. By the Waters of Manhattan is the novel of another important New Yorker poet, Charles Reznikoff. Al says: “‘NO HELP WANTED’ as a placard turns around the usual, ‘You’re an American boy, get a job.’” Ahabian resistance to progress and accumulation and reason, in a world of Starbucks. We found the rhetoric of folk song here, and we saw indeed deep traces of Moby Dick’s irrational-rational aestheticism. “Hunting for the Whale” is one of the “ten” things a Berrigan poem does for us every single day.
For the purposes of introducing the idea of the list poem to people not used to seriatic ways of modern and contemporary poetry, we agree that this poem is the perfect instance with which to start. “Teachable” in that sense.
For Jack Collom
The poem is dedicated to Jack Collom, and our Linh Dinh phoned Jack himself for his thoughts. Listen to PT #5 and find out what Jack told Linh.
Recorded in the Arts Café of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, PoemTalk #4 was produced by Al Filreis, edited and engineered by Steve McLaughlin. PennSound’s Ted Berrigan page is a treasure trove of great recordings, including the famous 1981 reading of his Sonnets in their entirety. Our poem can be heard here. The poem was read on the radio show “In the American Tree” in 1978, during an interview conducted by Lyn Hejinian and Kit Robinson on KPFA, Berkeley.
Allen Ginsberg sings Blake's 'The Garden of Love'
Hear the voice of the bard…
Which bard? Well, we’re not quite sure how bardic Charles Bernstein is, but he certainly loves the idea of poem as song; he jouned some by-now regular PoemTalkers (Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jessica Lowenthal) and chanted for us that very line. We’ve worn the grooves on an old LP of Allen Ginsberg signing William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and for the fourth PoemTalk chose Ginsberg’s countrified (crossover?) rendition of “The Garden of Love.” Does the snappy, twangy (and relatively tuneful) setting create an irony? Jessica thinks yes; Charles thinks no.
But perhaps the tune should be in conflict with the poem’s sense, and thus perhaps Ginsberg was not so much pushing a song of experience into a popular (and thus single-direction-tending) mode so much as making it still more Blakean.
The binary of innocence and experience, Rachel says, is broken by the way the song is sung. Blake wanted the binary to be broken; Ginsberg only breaks it further. And seems to be having fun along the way.
Listen for the happy out-take at the end. We had some fun ourselves, albeit somewhat atonally and quite arhythmically.
The Garden of Love
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
PoemTalk #4 was recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay produced; Steve McLaughlin is our director, engineer and editor. Ginsberg’s Blake song were recorded in New York City in 1969; PennSound has a complete collection of these recordings. Be sure to check out PennSound’s Ginsberg page.
George Oppen, 'Ballad'
Joined this time by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, the PoemTalkers wasted no time grappling with George Oppen’s grappling with the real. The rock of the island he’s visiting — its locatedness to be cherished — “outlived the classicists.” Is this anti-academic? Yes, we agreed. On an island in Maine, he meets a lobsterman and his wife and finds them super-articulate and at the same time admirably, wonderfully halting in their speech (like Oppen himself here). Oppen: “Difficult to know what one means.” The lobsterman’s wife: “I don't know how to say.” We are all in this real together. Jessica was just back from Vegas, Linh from Iceland, Rachel from teaching a class on the other side of town. Which instruments — archaic and etymologically historical or local, broken-toothed and ready-at-hand — are the tools that will help us understand where exactly we are? “Geo-positioning” seemed to be the word of the day.
Astrolabes and lexicons
Once in the great houses—
A poor lobsterman
Met by chance
On Swan's Island
Where he was born
We saw the old farmhouse
Propped and leaning on its hilltop
On that island
Where the ferry runs
A poor lobsterman
His teeth were bad
He drove us over that island
In an old car
A well-spoken man
As he knew in those rough fields
Lobster pots and their gear
Smelling of salt
The rocks outlived the classicists,
The rocks and the lobstermen's huts
And the sights of the island
The ledges in the rough sea seen from the road
And the harbor
And the post office
Difficult to know what one means
—to be serious and to know what one means—
Has a public quality
His wife in the front seat
In a soft dress
Such as poor women wear
She took it that we came—
I don't know how to say, she said—
Not for anything we did, she said,
Mildly, 'from God'. She said
What I like more than anything
Is to visit other islands...
Linh Dinh blogged about our Oppen session the evening after we recorded #3, so why shouldn’t Linh take it from here?
Rachel is a great Oppen scholar, knew him for twenty years, edited his collected letters, so of course she made many sharp points, which I won’t misquote here, but being gaseous, as usual, I observed that there is an alluring tension between the poem’s stately, majestic tone and its choppy, fumbling syntax. I hazarded that Oppen’s probing, drifting language, free of embellishments, reflects a tentative, doubting relationship to the real. There is a tourist logic working here. ((What the fuck am I talking about?)) My mind is still in Iceland, I fear, not the Swan’s Island, Maine, of the Oppen poem.
Island, insular, isolated, all derived from the Latin insula. Hawaiian-raised Zach Linmark told me that, as a teenager, he couldn’t wait to get out of Oahu. And yet, after bouncing around the U.S. mainland, England, his native Philippines and even Japan, he’s back on his lava spill for at least a portion of each year. Ólöf Arnalds, “Iceland's acid folk angel,” and I’ve heard her sing, and she's very good, told me that many of her compatriots also want to get out. Of the younger generations, almost everyone has travelled overseas. Those who haven’t are either very weird or very poor. Many Icelanders have settled abroad, but most would return home to live. It’s very odd, she thought. Ólöf herself has spent a year in Berlin.
We were riding back to Reykjavik after the farewell dinner for the Nýhil's Poetry Festival. The organizers had hired a bus to take everyone to a fine lobster feast in the village of Stokkseyri. Our conversation turned to the hegemony of English. English syntax is creeping into Icelandic, Ólöf informed me, “Sometimes I hear things said in Icelandic that appear to have been constructed in English.”
“That's incredible! You mean Icelanders are thinking in English while speaking Icelandic?”
“Yes, sometimes. Many Icelanders are so proud that we have come up with new words for ‘computer’ and ‘software,’ for example, but they don’t realize that English is creeping into our syntax. Icelandic grammar is very different from English. The language itself is very compact, whereas English is stretched out.”
Suddenly we were engulfed by a funny, rotten egg smell, similar to the tap water funk back in my bathroom. “It's the sulfur in the hot springs,” Ólöf laughed. It came from outside, in the darkened landscape. “I didn't want you to think it was me!”
PoemTalk #3 was recorded in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House, that 1851 Tudor-style cottage on Locust Walk in Philadelphia which was taken over in 1995 by a gang of learning-community-starved writers. The show was produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay, directed and edited by Steve McLaughlin. Oppen’s “Ballad” was recorded in 1979 in Brooklyn, by Verna Gillis and Michael Heller. Visit Oppen’s PennSound page.
Adrienne Rich, 'Wait'
When Adrienne Rich wrote the poem “Wait” she and many Americans and others were awaiting the start of what seemed an inevitable war in Iraq, in March 2003. The PoemTalk crew — Jessica Lowenthal, Linh Dinh, Randall Couch and your convener-host Al Filreis — couldn't wait (as it were) to get going on this terrestrial poem. Is it a personal is political poem? The soldier, after all, looks at his or her wedding ring and thinks about why s/he wasn’t told...but not told what? Is it a make love, not war poem? Is it a political poem at all? The Iraqi desert is “no place for the little lyric.” The gang variously wonders if the poem had something large to contend about lyric’s talent for reminding us of reasons why war is inhuman? Randall thinks it isn’t much of a war (or antiwar) poem; its strengths diminish as it gets more clearly into its political subject; in the end it closes off “with a click.” Linh prefers a less formalistic approach. Jessica and Al riff on the 1930s-style “hobos in a breadline” genre: its reputation for conservative form carrying radical content. Is this a formally conservative poem? If so, there’s an irony, for sure. The PoemTalkers can only agree that such a question is open, making the poem all the more interesting (and in that sense it’s a meta-poem, a poem about the problems of political poems).
In paradise every
the desert wind is rising
in hell there are no thoughts
is of earth
sand screams against your government
issued tent hell's noise
in your nostrils crawl
into your ear-shell
wrap yourself in no-thought
wait no place for the little lyric
wedding-ring glint the reason why
they never told you
PennSound’s collection of Rich recordings offers downloadable mp3s of three reading, including her 2005 performance at the Kelly Writers House, where she read a bit from The School among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004, including "Wait". She also gave a 32-second introduction to our poem.
PoemTalk #2 was recorded in Studio 111 at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, produced by Al Filreis and Mark Lindsay. Steve McLaughlin was our sound editor and we had help from that talented soundhead, Curtis Fox. We're grateful to Adrienne Rich who agreed, when she visited in 2005, to recite “Wait,” a favorite of the Writers House-affiliated students.