Rosmarie Waldrop’s book Shorter American Memory consists of prose poems collaged from documents collected in Henry Beston’s American Memory, a book of the late 1930s evincing an Americanist zeal for early documents. Beston's historicism seemed a liberal effort to restore and include in the American story, as it was being retold during the Depression, a wide range of Native American as well as both obscure and classic “founding” or “first encounter” Euro-American writings. By appying various constraints to these documents, Waldrop rewrites Beston by “taking liberties” — an intentional pun on her part — with the gist of the anthology and its very length. In doing so, (to quote her publishers at Paradigm Press) she “unearths compelling clues into America's perception of its own past, developing a vision of America vital for its intelligence, wit & compassion.”
We at PoemTalk decided to take a close look at one of these prose poems, “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence.” A performance of this poem, preceded by a short introduction, was recorded at Buffalo in 1992. The main work of that reading was to present many chapters from Key into the Language of America, a project related to that of Shorter American Memory in several ways we mention in our discussion. As a warm-up to Key, she read three of her writings-through Beston: ours on the Declaration, a second on Salem, and a third on “the American Character According to [George] Santayana.” Here is a link to Waldrop's PennSound page, where these and many other recordings are linked.
PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard’s own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound’s lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII. Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A P O U N D. Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more.
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.
LISTEN TO THE SHOW 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.